I Had Thyroid Cancer In My Teens and Didn’t Know It Until My Twenties

“Number eight,” I read off of my extensive list of thyroid cancer questions, “How did this happen? When did this happen?” I asked eagerly before pausing. “Uh. That’s number eight and nine, I guess.”

“Well, unless you’ve been exposed to an extreme level of radiation– like Chernobyl extreme– we don’t really know what causes thyroid cancer yet.”

“Oh, perfect,” I added sarcastically. Doctor Clayman smirked back at me.

Dr. Gary Clayman, AKA the best thyroid cancer surgeon in the world, me, and Nurse Courtney, an amazing human.

“And as far as the when goes, your thyroid cancer probably started growing when you were a teenager,” he said calmly while crossing to the garbage and removing his gloves.

I’m sorry, what was that? Here I was, getting diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 25 years old, and to top it off, he thinks I’ve had this disease since I was a teenager? What kind of a teenager? A nineteen-ager, meaning these tumors have been growing for six years now? A thirteen-ager, meaning I’ve had them for over a decade already? And how could Dr. Clayman be so nonchalant right now– so normal? Thirty seconds ago, he revealed to me that I have had thyroid cancer for almost half of my life, and yet he can continue to stand here and wash his hands as if that didn’t just happen? Was he a robot, or was I overreacting? Perhaps a little bit of both?

“Your type of thyroid cancer is so slow-growing,” he explained while lathering his hands, careful to cleanse in between each finger as a fine surgeon would, “That it took all this time to form a tumor noticeable enough for you to detect.” His tongue remained glued to the roof of his mouth as he emphasized the ‘L’ in ‘all,’ playing the same note for what felt like a full minute: “alllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll this time.”

thyroid cancer tumor
My largest thyroid tumor protruding from the side

How long have I been dying? Am I dying? I wondered.

I realized I hadn’t responded aloud yet.

“Woah,” I said, still searching for something to verbalize more appropriate than, “WHAT, FOR FUCK’S SAKE, DO YOU MEAN I’VE HAD THYROID CANCER SINCE I WAS A TEENAGER? IS THIS A JOKE?!”

“How is that even possible? I mean, how did I not notice anything until now?” There ya go, Lauren. Keep your cool.

“Your tumor is less than five centimeters in its largest dimension,” he started as he washed his hands. “Those five centimeters grew over, let’s say, ten years–” scrub, scrub, scrub— “since you were 15 years old,” scrub, scrub. “Who would notice that small and gradual of a change? Not many people, especially not those with an untrained eye,” he said in an attempt to make me feel better.

I could feel him studying my expression.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he added with a smile.

You’d Be Amazed At What Can Go Unnoticed

I didn’t want to be, but I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with myself. I don’t want to say I was taking the blame for getting thyroid cancer, but at least a small part of me felt like I let this happen by not noticing my tumor sooner. Then again, no one noticed it, even though I had lots of eyes on me every day for years.

For instance, I grew up in the age of the internet, and I created a MySpace profile around, I don’t know, twelve years old? I’ve posted pictures of myself online (profile angle included) for a good 13 years by the time of my diagnosis, and no one ever noticed a lump.

A photo I posted on FB one year before my diagnosis. You can clearly see my neck protruding at the base. No one noticed.

I performed in community theater until I was fifteen. I stood on stage, watched by an audience, a few times per year. During these performances, I wore stage makeup that often expanded onto my neck, meaning hands of all sorts were touching this specific area. No one ever felt anything suspicious.

My mom, a massage therapist for more than 20 years, worked on me for years and never found any lumps.

In college, I took public speaking courses and gave countless presentations. I student-taught two classes per semester to pay for grad school. Even when I found my tumors, I was working as a full-time high school teacher.

I had eyes on me every single day, and still, no one noticed. Not me, not my family, friends, coworkers, or students. Nobody. For ten years.

Now I Can See My Thyroid Tumors in Old Photos

Just a few days ago, my childhood best friend sent me a few throwback photos. This particular set of photos was from the summer I turned fourteen. At first, I sat in bliss as these photos allowed me to reminisce upon simpler times. But then I saw it. Right there, clear as day, staring back at me: what would grow into the largest of three thyroid cancer tumors. The one I would later find.

Me at 14– peep the shadow at the base of my neck. One of three thyroid tumors.

The tumor was much smaller than it would become 11 years later, but it was certainly present. As my eyes fixated on my petite, but growing mass, I couldn’t help but wonder: how badly have I ruined my chances of survival by living with this thing for so long?

Here’s the thing, though: in a different photo taken on the same day, from a different angle, you cannot see my tumor at all. Only with my head tilted at a certain angle and under lighting that casts a shadow, a weird bump can be seen at the very bottom of my neck. That goes to show how well tumors can hide.

Same day, different angles. You can’t see my tumor in the photo on the left, but you can in the photo on the right.

If there’s anything I want you to take away from this post, it’s this:

#1: Be Intentional About Checking For Lumps, Even If You’re Young and Healthy

Educate yourself about the types of cancer that are common, or ones that may deliver you a higher risk. For instance, if I had known about thyroid cancer, I would have known that it was on the rise in young women, particularly young white women. If I would have learned this information sooner, I could have been diligent about getting a neck check. If you are checking for lumps intentionally, you will have a greater chance at finding them.

#2: If You Don’t Find Your Tumor Early, Let It Go. You Can’t Change The Past.

The last thing you need to do after a cancer diagnosis is mentally beat yourself up. Stressing out over what could have been, what you didn’t notice, will not change anything, and it will just make you sick with worry in the meantime. If you get diagnosed with cancer, it’s important for your mind to stay as positive and strong as possible, so don’t get sucked into the sulking and self-pity parties. As a fellow survivor advised me, “Take one day to cry it out. Be angry, be sad for yourself. Spend the whole day in bed sulking. And then wake up the next day, and move on. Move on, and fight.”

#3: If You Are Diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer and Have Questions, Please Reach Out

I am here for you, and I understand what you’re feeling. You can always message me or contact me on Instagram or Facebook.

If you would like more information about thyroid cancer, start here:

MD Anderson Cancer Center

National Cancer Institute

Mayo Clinic

Please be aware of cancer treatment scams!!

You can read more about cancer treatment scams here.