The veterinary profession is profoundly humbling for many reasons. Being diagnosed with cancer is no different. It makes you reevaluate what you think you know, reorganize what is truly important, and reminds you that your time is quite limited. I was found to have a suspicious mass in my neck about 13 billion years ago, or last October. My attempts at convincing my doctors that it was just an ingrown hair were unsuccessful.
After multiple sounds, scopes, and needle pokes, I went through two surgeries to have the offending ingrown hair removed. While denial is a powerful drug, pathology is more powerful, and I was diagnosed with thyroid papillary carcinoma rather than a malignant beard. While the mass is now gone, along with my other thyroid gland and neck lymph nodes, I can finally start to see the light at the end of the tunnel 7 months later. The last big obstacle is a search and destroy mission aimed at the nasty, tricksy, little microscopic cancerous cells that may still remain. The answer: Radioactive Iodine 131.
I do not intend to be dismissive or insensitive of this type of cancer or other cancer survivors, but thyroid cancer is the Arizona Cardinals of cancer. It’s been around for a while, people have heard of it, but nobody ever takes it that seriously. The reason is mostly because it is one of the more treatable cancers, with a more favorable long term prognosis. Unlike many cancers that utilize chemotherapy or targeted beam radiation, and come with a more guarded prognosis, thyroid cancer treatment relies on radioactive iodine to a more sustained, less deleterious systemic effect.
Caution: SCIENCE AHEAD!
The thyroid glands synthesize the important metabolism regulating hormones T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (tetraiodothyronine) from iodine and tyrosine. Therefore, if you want to rid the body of any microscopic, cancerous thyroid tissue, all you have to do is take advantage of the thyroid tissues desire to utilize iodine. Enter I131 (radioactively unstable iodine). If you starve the body of iodine, and then provide it with an “explosive” version (I131), any residual thyroid tissue will preferentially absorb this iodine to its own demise. The unstable iodine then decays, releasing harmful beta radiation within millimeters of its location. In essence, I131 becomes a Trojan horse of radioactive decay within microscopic thyroid tissue.
Having a mini nuclear reaction within my body is so the easy part. The hard part, however, is the preparation: a low iodine diet. Starving the body of iodine is not as easy as you may think. Dairy products, sea food, and any processed food containing salt have the potential for being excessive sources of iodine. Even abundant meat consumption, some vegetables, and food coloring can contain iodine. So to recap, I can eat dirt… no wait, there can be a lot of iodine in dirt.
No commercial baked goods: I started making my own bread (sometimes daily). No hot sauce: A blender, some habeneros, and vinegar and you are on your way to a DIY colon cleanse. No cheese: Yeah that sucks, no real way around the no cheese thing. So the answer becomes fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed grains, unprocessed meats, and SUGAR. I am not going to say I have a problem with sugar (I can stop any time I want), but being able to put honey on fresh baked bread is definite distraction from having no milk in my coffee and no sushi in my mouth.
The truth is the iodine restrictive diet is not that bad. The diet only lasts a few weeks, and most restrictions can be overcome with creativity and patience. So while the days of no cheese and seafood are on my mind right now, I know it will be short lived, and the light at the tunnel is definitely brighter.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which I will undergo two nuclear scans, take a capsule that will hopefully turn me into the Hulk, and have an injection made from Chinese hamster ovaries. I can already hear my iodine-starved thyroid tissues screaming, or maybe that’s the hot sauce.