A little bit about you:
Name: Jennifer Ryan
City: Paradise, NL
What was/is your diagnosis?
Papillary thyroid cancer
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
January 2017; I was 32 at the time.
What is something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
I have organized a Shave for the Brave at my place of work, an elementary school, and shaved my head along with 50 students. It was a very successful event raising close to $20,000 for YACC.
What is a top item on your life to do list?
Travel to Australia. I have always wanted to see Australia and hope to travel there someday with my husband.
What are your hobbies?
I spend a lot of time playing with my kids at playgrounds, exploring the outdoors, and just having fun. I also enjoy completing renovation jobs around the house with my husband and relaxing on the couch watching tv.
What was your life like before your diagnosis?
My life was busy. I had three young children at the time aged seven, four, and two. I was working full time as a Special Education teacher and still considered myself pretty early into my marriage, although we had been together for eight years at that time. Life was good. We were settling into our careers and enjoying the adventure.
How did you find out you were sick? What led to your diagnosis?
I was at the playground with my children one day and I twisted my back a funny way to make eye contact with one of the kids. I injured my back and decided to see a chiropractor. After leaving my first chiropractic appointment, I was having some strange symptoms of blurred vision and nausea, so I went to my local ER to be assessed. The doctor ordered a CT scan to make sure I wasn’t badly injured from the chiropractic treatment. It came back that I was fine in that regard, but the doctor noted a small nodule on my thyroid that I should follow up on with my family physician.
I went to see my family doctor about the nodule and she sent me for a neck ultrasound. Unfortunately, I had to wait four months for my ultrasound. During the ultrasound, the technician voiced some concerns about the look of my nodule. He left the room numerous times to consult with the radiologist and I left there feeling quite worried. I received a call to have a follow up neck biopsy on December 19, 2016. During the procedure, the ENT calmed my worries by explaining how most of these come back benign and not to worry. I left there feeling a lot better about the whole situation. I returned to the hospital January 9, 2017 to find out my nodule was in fact cancerous.
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
I was shocked to hear that I had cancer, but my ENT downplayed the word and explained how many countries do not even treat thyroid cancer, so I would have surgery and that would be it. I took on his view as well and continued going about my life but eagerly awaited my surgery date to move on.
In which hospitals were you treated?
I was treated at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital and the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, NL.
What did your treatment consist of?
I had surgery on January 27, 2017 to remove the left side of my thyroid. The pathology showed my cancer had spread to several lymph nodes in my neck and that I had an aggressive form of papillary thyroid cancer called tall-cell variant. I stayed in the hospital for a couple of days following my surgery and then recovered at home for about three weeks.
I had a second surgery to remove the other half of my thyroid on March 9, 2017. I had a calcium crash following that surgery because my parathyroid glands were attached to my thyroid and were removed, so it took a few days to regulate my calcium before I could go home.
I had severe fatigue and slept most days away for several months until my thyroid medications were sorted out. I woke many mornings with aches in my bones and joints and walked from my bed feeling like an elderly woman, not the 32-year-old that I was.
I then had to do a Radioactive Iodine Treatment (RAI) in the form of a pill followed by four days of isolation in the hospital to kill the remaining cancer cells in my body. This part of my treatment was a changing point for me. Up until this point I was focused on treatment and getting better, but the isolation forced me to face my thoughts and that can be a scary place.
I was scared. Petrified. I finally realized during these days alone in a hospital room that I had cancer. I felt the weight of the word for the first time and it was suffocating. I got through this time with support from my family and friends.
I lost my sense of taste for three weeks following this treatment, but otherwise did not have any additional physical side effects.
What is your current medical status?
Life after cancer:
How is life different for you now post diagnosis?
Life is quite different for me. My day revolves around taking eight medications at very specific times to ensure they all absorb properly in my body. I still struggle with fatigue. I have also been struggling with kidney stones for the past eight months due to the supplements I have to take because I do not have a thyroid. I struggle with my body image and weight control.
Emotionally, I am doing well. I am much more grateful for my kids, family, and friends. I try my best to live in the moment and enjoy the little joys in life. Of course I have bad days where I’m consumed with fear of recurrence and anxiety, but those days are limited.
Things haven’t changed significantly socially. I still have the same friends, but they can’t fully understand how I feel at times, although they try. My stage of life with small children kind of consumes my time so my social life is about the same.
What is/was the toughest part about having cancer as a young adult?
The toughest part would have to be the feeling of isolation. Although I had a ton of support from family and friends, it is hard to explain how I still felt very much alone. I didn’t know any other young adults with cancer and that was scary.
What really helped you to keep going when you were sick?
My kids and husband were huge motivators. I wanted to finish with my treatment and recovery as soon as possible to spend more time with them. I also enjoyed exercising as soon as I had enough energy to do so. Exercise allowed me to get out of my head and also push my body and remind myself that I was still very capable.
What kept you busy during treatment?
Lots of FaceTime sessions with my kids and husband while I was in the hospital. Watching Netflix and sleeping were also high on the list.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada? How did it happen?
I attended my first conference in St. John’s, NL in June 2017. I was lucky enough to be attending an exercise class with an employee of YACC who told me all about the organization.
I then applied for Retreat Yourself Adventure in September 2017. That Retreat was life-changing for me. I connected with other young adults and felt calm for the first time in a long time. It felt good to share my story and have people who truly understood what I had been through.
I then hosted — and participanted in — a Shave for the Brave in March 2018. That was an incredible experience. My husband and I then attended Survivor Conference together in May 2019 in St. Catherines, Ontario. I left the conference wanting to do more to help with YACC’s mission and applied to become a Yacctivist. I am so happy I did. I just returned home from an incredible training weekend in Toronto, ON! I am looking forward to my involvement with YACC for many years to come.
Do you feel isolated from your peers since your diagnosis? If so, how does that affect you?
Yes, it makes me feel different from my peers and question my entire life. Why me? What did I do wrong? Every small little ailment since the day I heard “it’s cancer” immediately brings me to a place of fear and isolation, worrying it could be back. Other young adults who haven’t had a cancer diagnosis just don’t get that.
Did anyone talk to you about fertility options before treatment?
Fortunately, I had three children at the time of my diagnosis, and I now have four. Fertility was not discussed throughout my diagnosis and treatment.
Has your cancer diagnosis affected any of the relationships in your life? If so, how, and how are you managing them?
I am very fortunate to have an amazing, supportive husband. Since my diagnosis, our bond has only gotten stronger. He has demonstrated his love for me on so many levels and I am forever grateful for him. I find some friends in my life are not comfortable when I want to talk about my sickness. They just don’t know what to say and the conversation usually ends abruptly. This is challenging, but it’s no one’s fault, really. I do have my YACCers to talk to, and that has helped me so much.
If you have children, how has your diagnosis affected the way you parent? Do you have any tips for other parents on talking to their children?
My diagnosis robbed me of valuable time with my children while I was recovering from surgeries and dealing with fatigue for an extended amount of time. I now try to slow down the pace of our daily lives and enjoy all the little moments. I know those moments are really the big ones I will cherish.
My children were young at the time of my diagnosis so I told them I had a bad butterfly in my neck that was making me sick and the doctors had to remove it. Once I started to share my story more in the media, I introduced them to the word “cancer.” Now that my older kids are in school, they hear more about cancer during discussions about Terry Fox and Lance Armstrong.
My advice to other parents would be to be honest with your children. There are a lot of lovely story books to help explain cancer in child-friendly language. Start from there and answer their questions as they come up.
How has your cancer experience affected your body image, and your relationship to your body?
I have a small scar on my neck from my cancer experience and I truly forget about it most days. I don’t hate it or love it. When someone asks about it, I am reminded of my experience and the challenges, but it’s a good reminder to be grateful for where I am today.
I have always struggled with being comfortable in my own skin, and that has remained the same through cancer. I have birthed three children as well, so that certainly plays a factor in my new body. I am slowly moving towards being at peace with my body through several sessions I attended at YACC events. These sessions forced me to think about my body image and how to move towards a more loving relationship with my body. It’s certainly a process but I’m moving in the right direction.
What are some lifestyle changes you’ve made since your diagnosis?
I have always eaten fairly well and exercised, so I’ve continued to do those things. On days I am not feeling the energy to do it or have had an overly busy day, I will try to push through and get the exercise in because I always feel better afterwards. I was sort of slacking on the exercise for a bit after my son was born, but I attended a Survivor Conference session on exercise and the benefits for Cancer patients and that really motivated me to make the effort to get to my workouts more often.
Resources and recommendations:
What would you add to a treatment-day playlist?
- “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston
- “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten
- “Try Everything” by Shakira
Which books/movies/podcasts/TV shows/etc. would you recommend?
- Books by Brene Brown — any of them!
- Comedies were great for me to take my mind off things. Bridesmaids is one of my favourites.
- The Soar Above Cancer podcast is really great and relatable–AND created by awesome YACCers Gabrielle Fecteau and Alex Mandarino!
Have you participated in any other retreats, conferences, programs, or support groups you’d like your cancer peers to know about?
Everything I have attended thus far has been YACC-related. If you haven’t reached out to attend an event, do it! You will not regret it. Start small and take in a Localife event if you can and go from there.
Are there any other resources you’d like to recommend?
I’ve recently started making time to meditate and use the app Headspace. It’s really great and sends me helpful reminders to get it in throughout my day.
Stay in touch:
What would you like to say to other young adults dealing with cancer who are reading this profile?
If you feel like you can relate to my story or simply want to chat, please get in touch. I would love to chat and support whoever I can through this process.
(If you are interested in getting in touch with Jenn, email [email protected] and we will forward your message to her.)