2 local teens spreading the word about thyroid cancer

PITTSBURGH — Two local teenagers are wanting to spread the word about thyroid cancer. These cases are increasing in women under 19.

After a fun vacation at the beach, Diaz Gochenour came home and noticed a lump on her neck.

“I immediately panicked. Then I called my parents and the first words that came out of my mouth were, ‘I have cancer!’  They were like, ‘No, calm down, it’s ok,” said Diaz.

She contacted her pediatrician. When the lump didn’t go away, she called an oral surgeon thinking maybe it was a result of getting wisdom teeth out. Then her doctor told her to get blood work and an ultrasound.

“I knew that it wasn’t normal. So, I just felt like I had to be very adamant about it because it was a long process to get the diagnosis that we needed,” said Diaz.

Eventually – the diagnosis was thyroid cancer. Diaz was 19.

Emily Morgan had a lump on her neck, too. At just 15 she got the same diagnosis: thyroid cancer.

“I was kind of shocked. The day I got diagnosed it kind of hit me. I went right to a softball game, and I told all my friends. They were, like, ‘Really? No way!’ No one really felt like I was serious,” Morgan said.

At UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, doctors have seen a 4% uptick in thyroid cancer in children over the last decade. The hospital now has a dedicated pediatric thyroid center run by Dr. Randy Windreich.

Dr. Windreich says the center has approximately 10 to 20 new thyroid cancer patients per year.

Dr. Windreich says he and his colleagues are still not sure why there is an uptick in thyroid cancer among young people.

“There is an increased risk seen for patients exposed to radiation. There are also some genetic factors, narrative patterns as well in families. But for most cases, we are still learning about it and trying to figure that out,” said Dr. Windreich.

Nationwide, thyroid cancer makes up 1.5% of childhood cancers, but it makes up 8% of cancers in teens. Most are 15 to 19 years old, and most are young women.

Both Diaz and Emily had surgery at UPMC Children’s Hospital to remove the cancer and a treatment of radioactive iodine.

The good news is thyroid cancer is highly treatable, though Emily had to have a second surgery for the cancer. She has returned to the things she loves, like softball, and one day hopes to be a pediatric oncology nurse.

“I want to give back to the kids stuck in a situation like mine,” said Emily.

Diaz is thriving in college and wants other teens to learn from her story.

“You are your biggest advocate. Sometimes you’re the only person who knows how you feel and you’re the only person who can really speak up for yourself. I think it’s so important to get things checked out and to make sure you are feeling your best or else something could be wrong.”

Often there are no symptoms of thyroid cancer at all, except a lump. That’s why it’s important to have your doctor do a neck exam during your yearly physical and take any lump seriously.

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