Each year, an estimated 20,000,000 Americans are victims of various thyroid conditions that may not show any symptoms at all. 60 percent of them do not even know that there is something wrong. I was one of those Americans.
In my case, my condition turned out to be thyroid cancer. And at the age of 34, a month before my baby girl turned 1, I had to have my entire thyroid removed. While my cancer story could employ another 10,000 words (future post alert), the focus of today’s post is to bring awareness to the thyroid itself.
Happy Thyroid Awareness Month
To be honest, before I lost my thyroid, I didn’t even know what a thyroid was. Spoiler alert: biology was not my favorite subject in school. Turns out, you literally can’t live without the hormone your thyroid produces. The thyroid itself is a 2-inch butterfly-shaped gland that resides in your neck, atop your throat. Its job is to make thyroid hormones, which are secreted into the blood and then carried to every tissue in the body. Thyroid hormones help the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should.
If your thyroid is underactive it does not produce enough of the hormone, and you suffer from hypothyroidism. This condition can cause trouble sleeping, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, dry skin and hair, depression, heavy periods and joint and muscle pain.
In short: a typical Monday for me … even with my thyroid levels in check.
If left untreated, hypothyroidism eventually slows everything in your body down. When this happens, you can fall in to what is referred to as a Myxedema coma. A myxedema coma is defined as severe hypothyroidism leading to decreased mental status, hypothermia, and other symptoms related to slowing of function in multiple organs. It is a medical emergency with a high mortality rate.
Alternatively, if your thyroid is overactive it is producing too much of the hormone, and you suffer from hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism can cause anxiety, irritability, excessive sweating, hair loss, hand trembling and lighter periods.
So, a typical Tuesday for me…
Like hypothyroidism, if left untreated, hyperthyroidism can quickly escalate in to a fatal condition known as Thyroid Storm. During Thyroid Storm, an individual’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature can soar to dangerously high levels. Without prompt, aggressive treatment, Thyroid Storm is often fatal.
Because the symptoms in both conditions also mimic other conditions, diagnosing thyroid diseases can be difficult. Blood tests measuring the hormone levels the thyroid produces is essential in diagnosis. Treatment often entails taking a synthetic hormone in order to compensate for the lack or abundance of the hormone your own thyroid is producing. Regular check-ups from an endocrinologist (usually every 6 months) ensure that your levels are monitored closely and your body is functioning as it should.
Because I no longer have a thyroid, I take a very high dose of the synthetic hormone daily. I have to take it every morning, at the same time, for the rest of my life. If I miss a dose or two (or a week’s worth… which happened once during a move and will NEVER happen again), my body let’s me know it. And it’s not nice about it. The pill itself has a whole host of side effects, but they pale in comparison to not taking it at all.
I am fortunate to work with a group of medical professionals who, in the event I did fall in to a Myxedema coma or victim to a Thyroid Storm, would be able to stabilize me.
Building awareness of thyroid health is essential to improving early diagnosis of what could be a fatal condition and ensuring prompt treatment, if necessary. The Blue Paisley Ribbon was recently chosen as the symbol for Thyroid Awareness. Paisley was chosen because of its resemblance to a cross section of thyroid follicles. During the month of January, we encourage you to wear the pattern as a ribbon, scarf or tie and tell people why you are showing your support for this very small, but very important organ.
And remember: if your thyroid is not performing properly, neither are you.