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When Your Family Member or Friend Has Thyroid Disease:

An Open Letter to the Family and Friends of Thyroid Patients

By

Updated May 29, 2014

When Your Family Member or Friend Has Thyroid Disease:

The support of friends and family can make all the difference to thyroid patients.

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If your loved one has thyroid cancer, they have an entirely different challenge. The majority of thyroid cancers are considered highly treatable and survivable, so doctors and others often cavalierly refer to thyroid cancer as "the good cancer." But the reality is, no cancer is "good," and someone who has thyroid cancer has cancer, "the big C." Cancer as a concept is frightening, and raises fears and concerns. Someone with thyroid cancer initially may have few, if any, symptoms. In some cases, however, they may have hypothyroid, hyperthyroid, or a combination of symptoms of a thyroid imbalance. Most thyroid cancer patients require surgery to remove the thyroid -- and this can be daunting, including the idea of a several-inch incision in the neck and resulting scar. After surgery, many thyroid cancer patients will need to have followup radioactive iodine treatment to ensure that all the cancerous tissue was removed, and it can be many weeks after surgery before a thyroid cancer patient -- who by that point is typically quite hypothyroid -- can start thyroid medication to again get lifesaving thyroid hormone they need. And the thyroid cancer patient in your life will require lifetime of medical treatment for the resulting hypothyroidism, along with periodic -- and sometimes physically challenging -- follow-ups and scans to monitor for a recurrence of the cancer.

These are just a few of the conditions that can affect thyroid patients. There are autoimmune diseases -- Graves' disease and Hashimoto's -- that can be at the root of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Sometimes people develop a goiter -- an enlarged thyroid -- or benign nodules that cause symptoms. Sometimes a temporary infection causes thyroiditis. And again, these problems can be difficult to pinpoint, misdiagnosed as everything under the sign, and even when diagnosed, poorly treated.

So what many thyroid patients have in common is living in a world that overlooks, downplays, poorly treats -- and sometimes even makes fun of -- their condition.

Magazine articles, books by doctors, patients brochures in doctors offices -- and doctors themselves -- insist simplistically that thyroid disease is "easy to diagnose, easy to treat" even though patients know that this is far from the truth. As for "easy to diagnose," your loved one may have even struggled to get diagnosed -- to get taken seriously -- in the first place. Doctors regularly misdiagnose hyperthyroid patients as having an eating or anxiety disorder, and hypothyroid patients as having stress, depression, PMS, or menopause.

Worse yet are the truly unsympathetic physicians that we all too frequently encounter in thyroid care. Like the marathon runner with hypothyroidism who was in training, on a strict diet, and still gaining weight and was told by her doctor that she had "fork in mouth disease." Or the endocrinologists who tell patients, "Well, you should be GLAD, you know, because you have the GOOD cancer!" Or the doctor who diagnosed a woman with hyperthyroidism by clapping his hands together loudly behind her head, chortling: "Oh, I can always tell you hypers, because you practically jump off the examining table when I do that!"

There are advertisements and comedians who use "thyroid problem" as the not-so-secret code to describe someone who is fat. And there's a whole realm of scam artists out there trying to sell us cockamamie Thyro-this and Thyro-that "cures" for thyroid disease that in many cases can make things a whole lot worse -- or at best, not help at all.

Even Oprah admitted she had a thyroid problem, then claimed it went away, then said she had it but it wasn't an excuse for her weight gain, then decided not to get treatment, and continues to struggle with her health issues.

And perhaps saddest of all, there are friends and relatives who say "I don't buy this thyroid disease thing, it's just an excuse for not losing weight" or "Thyroid? Hah! She's just lazy!" Or, "Why can't he just get OVER it and get back to normal?"

Husbands criticize their wives for gaining weight. Teenagers whisper behind a friend's back about anorexia. Coworkers complain that their colleague is "lazy."

Once we're diagnosed, treatment is not an easy fix for many thyroid patients. Doctors try to rush hyperthyroid patients into permanently disabling the thyroid with a radioactive treatment that will make them hypothyroid for life. Many doctors believe there is only one medication to treat hypothyroidism -- a medication that does not resolve symptoms for all patients. When patients learn about other available options, doctors may stonewall, refuse additional treatments, or push antidepressants, cholesterol medications, weight loss pills and more, instead of addressing the thyroid issues. The conventional medical establishment believes that treatment for thyroid problems is one-size-fits-all. This cavalier attitude means that many thyroid patients struggle for years to live and feel well, despite being diagnosed and "treated."

I'm here to ask you -- in a world where thyroid patients are disregarded, overlooked, misdiagnosed, abused, exploited, mocked, and ignored -- to be the person who truly "gets it" for the thyroid patient in your life. Be the person who understands that while thyroid disease may not be visible, it is causing your friend or loved one to suffer. Be the person who understands that even though celebrities aren't talking about thyroid disease, and sports figures aren't wearing bracelets to promote thyroid awareness, that this is a genuine, difficult, and life-changing diagnosis.

Be the person who opens mind and heart to the thyroid patients in your life. Be the person who listens, and learns about the struggles and challenges. Be the person who empowers the thyroid patient in your life, by helping him or her do as much as possible to improve health. Be the person to help find doctors and practitioners who do not view your friend or relative as a cookie-cutter patient on a thyroid assembly line. Be the person who helps the thyroid patient in your life to maintain balance-- to help find time for rest, for exercise, for stress reduction, for self-care, for proper nutrition, for fun!

Live well,

Mary Shomon
Thyroid Patient Advocate

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