Think You Can Put Off that Routine Annual Checkup? Think Again.

December 1, 2010

We are all busy – between work, kids, family and friends, schedules book up fast. For me, this year was particularly hectic due to an unusually tough political climate. My reelection campaign was an additional demand on top of the usual congressional schedule and family commitments. It would have been easy to postpone my routine annual medical checkup until after the November election or beyond. But I’m glad I didn’t.

In August, I scheduled and kept the appointment for a regular examination by my doctor. I wasn’t having any special symptoms but knew I had a demanding few months ahead so decided to get it over with. During the checkup, my doctor felt a small lump on my neck and directed that I have my thyroid scanned. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what a thyroid was. It is an organ at the base of the throat that makes hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and weight.

I was sure a scan would show nothing but followed my doctor’s orders. An ultrasound showed the lump he felt during the exam was indeed nothing. However, the ultrasound also showed a second node that looked abnormal. I was sent for a biopsy that revealed the second nodule to be cancerous. I would have to have my thyroid surgically removed. While my first impulse was to get it done immediately, I knew I would need time to recover and I would not be at peak performance for awhile. So I consulted with my doctors to see if waiting until after the election would have any negative consequences for my health. I was told that thyroid cancer is slow growing and it was okay to wait for this short period to have it removed.

After the election, when I could devote a week to rest and recovery, I had my thyroid and lymph nodes removed. The surgery, along with a radioactive iodine treatment that I will have in a few months, should effectively treat my cancer. Medication will replace the functions of the thyroid to regulate my body’s metabolism. (When I told my 12 year old son this, he comforted me by saying “See — who needs a thyroid anyway?”) My energy is starting to come back, though more slowly than I would like or expected. I’m assured all I am experiencing is normal.

I’ve heard from a surprising number of people who have had this surgery. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 44,670 new cases of thyroid cancer will be diagnosed in 2010, with approximately 1,690 being fatal. The number of cases is far fewer than lung, breast, colon, prostate and other cancers and the prognosis is very good.  In that respect I’m very lucky. And while thyroid cancer is not considered preventable, it is possible to find it early, treat it and go on to live a long, healthy, life.

Early detection and treatment are key. Don’t put off that annual checkup. Hopefully, your doctor will give you a clean bill of health. But if not, the next best thing is to find anything out of the ordinary early and treat it before it becomes more complicated and life-threatening.

Editor’s Note: Guest Blogger Jim McGovern of Worcester, Massachusetts, has served in the United States House of Representatives since 1997 and in November was reelected for a 9th term.  His wife, Lisa Murray McGovern serves as Executive Director of Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program. They have two children, Patrick and Molly. To learn more about cancer risk reduction visit the Prevent Cancer Foundation Web site.

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