Nancy O'Brien is the picture of health or so she thought until she was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer on New Year's Eve. We are so happy she was willing to share her journey through that with us here.
Nancy we’ve known each other a while and you have always been so athletic and such the picture of health, then a shocking crisis happened recently, please share with us what that was and how you felt hearing this news?
No one was more shocked than me when I received a phone call from my endocrinologist late in the afternoon on December 31, 2013, telling me that I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I didn’t know how to process the information. My doctor seemed so matter of fact over the phone, like she was a customer service representative reading from a script! She told me what “category” it was in but that didn’t make any sense to me. I asked her what stage the cancer was in and she said she didn’t know. “Why didn’t she know,” I asked myself? I didn’t hear any compassion in her voice, just a list of what I needed to do next. She said I needed to schedule surgery soon, and that I would need to receive radioactive iodine after the surgery.
Then she asked me which surgeon I wanted to perform the surgery. “I don’t know any surgeons. I’ve never been in the hospital in my entire life,” I replied. Then she told me she would refer me to someone, and that I can call her anytime if I have any questions. After I hung up the phone I just began to cry. My husband was sitting right next to me and overheard the entire conversation. He held me tight and tried to comfort me. At this point, I had more questions than answers. How did I get this? What stage is it? Why don’t they know? Why did my other biopsy come back benign six months prior to this biopsy? What is radioactive iodine? What are the side effects? Is it absolutely necessary? Why did she call me on New Year’s Eve? Does that mean it’s really bad that this news couldn’t wait?!? If so, why didn’t she call me with the test results before Christmas? I went in for the biopsy on December 20th and they told me the results should take less than a week. I had forgotten about it a few days later and thought everything was fine. No news is good news, right? Why didn’t she tell me in person? The questions didn’t stop so I went to the internet for answers.
How has being told you have cancer changed your life? What lessons have you come away with?
I’ve learned to say no. I don’t let people talk me into things I really don’t want to do anymore. I express my feelings. Time is valuable and we need to make the best of our time. I consciously decide on what projects I want to take on and then I focus on completing them one hundred percent. I decided it is most important to take care of myself. Surround myself with positive people. Make an effort to spend quality time with friends and family who are important to me. Have fun! Be adventurous! Take risks!
How are you living differently from this experience?
I’ve always been exceptionally healthy and I’ve always exercised, but I’ve turned it up a notch. I try to buy and eat organic food as much as possible. I’ve never been one to drink sodas on a daily basis but I used to occasionally enjoy a Sprite. Now I don’t drink sodas anymore and I don’t crave them, nor do I miss them. Occasionally, I used to eat some fast food, but after watching the documentaries, “Super-Size Me” and “Food, Inc.” a few years ago, I switched to eating Subway sandwiches, thinking that was healthier. Recently, however, I found out about Subway using dough conditioners in their bread (a chemical used in yoga mats and the soles of shoes) through FoodBabe.com. I found out about Vani Hari (a.k.a “The Food Babe”) through my friend Shauna O’Brien when I reached out to her about my cancer diagnosis. I currently receive e-mails and Facebook messages from the Food Babe. I continue to educate myself on eating healthier every day. With the exception of occasionally eating at In-N-Out burger, I’ve cut out eating at all other fast food restaurants, including chicken places and especially McDonalds. One of the main things I’ve done is to completely cut out sugar from my diet. I don’t have it in my coffee anymore and I can’t even tell the difference. I had no idea how much I was consuming until I really started reading labels. They put sugar in everything! I also cut out all sweeteners from my diet as much as possible, and I especially avoid anything that contains High Fructose Corn Syrup. I don’t use Teflon skillets, pots or pans; instead I use stainless steel pots and pans or Orgeenic skillets. When I go to the gym I drink my water from a PBA free Nalgene bottle. Even though I don’t believe that my diet contributed to me being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I still want to change it for the better. I’ve been told that Thyroid Cancer is caused primarily by radiation exposure. I have a few theories on how I may have gotten thyroid cancer but I’m still researching it. I’m very fortunate to have inherited great genes, but I now know my life is not only about counting calories, it’s about counting chemicals. I want to know everything that is going into my body. I’m not a doctor or an expert on the subject of eating better, but I’m constantly learning and I want to be as healthy as possible.
What advice can you give others that may have battled something similar?
You know your body better than anyone else. Listen to your instincts. Question your doctors. Do your research. Get second and third opinions. (Thanks Devin for giving me that great advise and I listened.) If you are not happy with your doctors then find new ones. I ended up finding a new endocrinologist and surgeon. That was the best decision I made, otherwise my outcome would have turned out a lot different with a longer recovery. My surgeon, Dr. Michael P. McNicoll at Kiaser, specializing in cancer of the head and neck, did a phenomenal job. Not only did he do a great job of removing all the cancer, the incision was so neat, thin and hidden within a natural fold in my neck. I expect the scar to be non-existent when everything heals completely. It’s only been three months and I can barely see it now. Talk to people who have gone through the same thing. Be as healthy as possible by working out and eating healthy.
What are you doing now?
I’m writing a book! It’s a comedy about my true life dating experiences. My husband is very supportive. I’m back doing my outdoor activities again. Recently, I went paragliding for the first time and I had a blast. I’ve been rock climbing more often and I challenge myself with every climb. My favorite new place to go is Echo Cliffs in Malibu. It has a gnarly approach that takes about an hour to get to the climbing area. I even helped my husband teach a bunch of first time climbers recently at Point Dume in Malibu. I’m going to Peru this October with my husband to celebrate our three year wedding anniversary. We will acclimate on Machu Picchu, pass through Lake Titicaca, and then summit Coropuna Mountain (21079 feet), then relax on the on the beaches south of Lima. Life is full of possibilities!