Portions of the Lake Norman area have experienced thyroid-cancer rates as much as three times higher than the rest of North Carolina in recent years. Legislators and local elected officials have joined citizens in criticizing the state for what they consider an inadequate response.
But in the flurry of figures, finger-pointing and speculation about a cause for the increased incidences of thyroid cancer locally, what can get lost is the reality that the statistics chronicle the cases of real people.
And the reality is that those cases overwhelmingly involve young women.
Locally, some of those women were told by doctors that if they had to pick a cancer, thyroid cancer – sometimes referred to as “the good cancer” because the growth rate is slow and survival rates are high – would be at the top of the list. Those women say they feel fortunate that of all the cancers they could have had, they had one of the least deadly.
But cancer is cancer, and their lives were changed forever the day they were told of their diagnoses.
“I feel lucky, but it’s still not fair,” says Cat Lynn, who underwent a thyroidectomy – a complete removal of her thyroid – when she was just 16 years old. “No cancer is easy. It’s just a bad word.”
Here are the very real stories of local women who have experienced thyroid cancer.
‘The girl who had cancer’
Kathryn Canlas was 13 when she was diagnosed in 2007. The Mooresville High School graduate is now 24.
On the day of her diagnosis, Kathryn was sent out of the room while doctors broke the news to her mom. When she was called back in, her mom was crying. More than a decade later, tears roll down Kathryn’s cheeks as she touches the scar on her neck, a constant reminder of her surgery. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die,’” she recalls. “I’m going to lose all my hair, and I’m going to die.”
Kathryn’s thyroid cancer metastasized to her lungs and brain. She still has a spot in her lung that’s too small for doctors to feel comfortable intervening.
She says all she’s ever wanted is to say she’s cancer-free.
“I didn’t do anything to cause this,” she says. “I just want to be done with it. I’ll be fine, but I still have it, and that’s what makes me mad.”
Kathryn found out in November that her thyroid cancer is back. Like the spot on her lung, the lump in her throat was too small to require surgical intervention. But her most-recent scan in February showed it had doubled in size within three months.
Kathryn is not eligible for another radioactive iodine treatment, often used to destroy thyroid tissue that may have been left behind after a thyroidectomy. She has already undergone three treatments, so she’s maxed-out for life.
When Kathryn started seeing endocrinologist Brittany Henderson, the doctor mentioned another teen in Mooresville with thyroid cancer: Taylor Wind.
Taylor was 16 and a student at Lake Norman High School when she was diagnosed. Her family doctor initially attributed her symptoms to allergies, anxiety and “teenage-girl” matters. But a persistent, pea-sized lump behind Taylor’s ear led her mom, Susan Wind, to seek- out experts like Henderson.
Eventually frustrated by what she considered to be indifference by state health officials concerning the increased incidences of local cases like her daughter’s, Susan raised $110,000 from the community to commission a group of Duke University chemists to study Mooresville’s environment in search of possible causes. The study is ongoing.
Taylor says she didn’t want to talk about her diagnosis – or even say the word “cancer” – when she was first diagnosed. She and several other young women recall not wanting to be known around school as “the girl who had cancer.”
The girls talked about their struggle with exhaustion, a condition commonly called “thyroid fatigue.” After their surgeries, most found that they have to take their medication at the same time every day. If they don’t, they feel “mopey” or are too tired to move.
Cat is almost 18 now. She should be a student at Lake Norman High School, but she had to transfer to an online school because she couldn’t even get out of bed.
“I struggle with my appetite until 2 or 3 p.m.,” she says. “And that’s if you can get me up by then.”
Alex Lunsford, now 23, moved to Mooresville in the fourth grade. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2017, during her senior year of college. She tried holistic changes, but her tumors continued to grow. In June of last year, her thyroid was removed.
“I feel a significant dip in energy since my surgery,” she says. “I have friends who can run around all day and stay up at night. I try not to compare, but I always feel a step behind.”
Michelle Nesbit was 39 when she was diagnosed five years ago. Her daughter was 10 at the time.
“It’s horrible feeling like this; I have no energy,” she says. “I have a 15-year-old child who is involved in soccer, and I don’t want to go and do anything. I’m too tired to go out with my own child.”
‘I can’t die right now’
D’Asya Cooper, 27, lost her hair and gained 50 pounds in less than two months. Her doctor chalked it up to depression because D’Asya was going through a divorce.
“I wasn’t buying it,” D’Asya recalls. “My vision was starting to get blurrier, and my hair was starting to fall out.”
She discovered a lump on her throat in April 2017. It eventually started cutting off her airways at night. Her doctor dismissed it as asthma, but then food started getting stuck in D’Asya’s throat during meals.
All she remembers from Nov. 14, 2017, is the call that changed her life.
“You have thyroid cancer,” D’Asya remembers her doctor saying. “I blacked out. I dropped to my knees. I said, ‘I can’t die right now. I’ve got two babies to take care of on my own.’”
Macenzie Myers recently drove 45 minutes “home” to Mooresville. A 2015 graduate of Lake Norman High School, she now lives and attends college in Salisbury. She looks like any other 22-year-old – except, perhaps, for the scar across her throat.
Macenzie was just 19 when she was diagnosed.
“The worst part was looking over and seeing my parents crying – especially my dad,” she recalls.
Cat, Kathryn, Taylor, Alex, D’Asya, Michelle and Macenzie are among 50 participants in Duke University’s ongoing environmental study.
While throat scars may be the most visible sign of a thyroidectomy, Cat says the deepest scars are the ones people can’t see.
“The thyroid plays a very important part in emotional health,” she says. “I’m a lot more sensitive to things now. I’m off-balance a lot of times. I get upset or moody.
“There’s not really anything I can do about it. It feels unfair, and it definitely hurts.”
Several of the girls noted that they had higher anxiety levels after surgery. Taylor remembers being overcome with emotion one day at school. A senior at LNHS at the time, the school had granted her access to the visitors’ parking lot so she didn’t have as far to walk to and from her car. But after several run-ins with an administrator over the parking arrangement, “I broke down, hysterical crying,” Taylor recalls. “I was so over it – school and everything. I was so sensitive, and my emotions and hormones were off, and I was uncomfortable being in school anyway.”
Taylor – now 18 and attending the University of Central Florida – also vividly recalls the day of her radioactive iodine treatment … and how the pill she would ingest was carried in a cooler by a person in hazmat gear.
Though some people don’t experience side effects when taking the radioactive iodine, Taylor did.
“One minute I was walking normal, and then I kinda felt like I was getting the flu in a matter of five seconds,” she says. “I was sweaty and achy.”
Patients are quarantined from others for at least five days after the treatments because they’re radioactive. Taylor’s siblings went to stay at friends’ houses. Her parents stayed on a different floor in the house.
“I had to eat on paper plates; everything had to be disposable,” Taylor recalls. “I couldn’t take baths, and I had to flush the toilet with the lid closed so the radioactivity wouldn’t get into the air.”
After Macenzie’s treatment, her dad asked for a hug.
“‘Dad, I’m radioactive,’” Macenzie recalls telling him.
He hugged her anyway.
“You’ll be okay,” she remembers him saying.
Macenzie spent five days in the family’s basement.
“My mom would drop my food off,” she says.
When Danielle Bulger, 44, underwent the treatment, she had to be quarantined from her three sons, ages 10, 13 and 15. Unable to be near his mom, her 10-year-old would sit on the opposite side of a glass door to finish his homework, just to feel near her.
“He’s a momma’s boy,” Danielle says with a smile.
Danielle has lived in the 28117 zip code for 16 years. She owns a gym and used to work out five days a week. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a year ago. She had 42 lymph nodes removed, 12 of which were cancerous.
Six months later, the cancer was back. Doctors removed five more lymph nodes, three of which were cancerous.
Danielle says she can’t remember the last time she was able to work out.
“I’m thyroid-tired,” she says. “It’s a new normal.”
Michelle missed spending the holidays with her daughter.
Her surgery was just before Thanksgiving, and her radioactive iodine treatment was on Christmas Eve. “I wasn’t able to spend Christmas with her, and of course that tore my heart up,” she says. “I had to stay away for seven days, locked in my room.”
After the original shock of their cancer diagnoses, many of the young women started hearing and seeing more information – especially on social media – about the prevalence of cases in ZIP codes 28115 and 28117, Susan Wind’s efforts and the Duke University study.
Wind has a Facebook page – Team Taylor Environmental Grant – where she posts about thyroid cancer and environmental news and developments, including updates on coal ash research in the state and across the country. While coal ash hasn’t scientifically been linked to thyroid cancer, Wind says she wants to see it ruled out as a cause.
The more the young women read, the more questions they started having about their diagnoses.
“There is no cancer in my side of the family, so why did I get it?” asks Michelle. “At that time, it was a feel-sorry-for-myself ‘why me?’ But then Susan came along, and it was like – no, wait a minute – why me?”
D’Asya said she asked the same question: “I’m 26 years old. How can this be happening to me? Where did it come from?”
Macenzie says she, too, has no family history of thyroid cancer. While radiation exposure is a known risk factor for developing cancer, “I’ve never even broken a bone,” she says.
Cat says her family moved some when she was growing up, but the house they spent the longest amount of time in was behind Target, in 28117. Members of the two families that lived in the house prior to Cat’s family have also battled cancer, she says.
“Getting these cancers kinda seemed normal – because everybody had it,” says Cat.
“They didn’t do anything”
Macenzie said the only unresolved issue for her is knowing now that the state had data for years that – if analyzed – would have shown Iredell County had significantly higher numbers of thyroid cancer cases than the state average.
“They knew about it and didn’t do anything,” she says. “There were people in charge that maybe could have prevented some of this.”
At the very least, the county could have been made aware of the large number of cases much earlier, potentially helping people catch their cancer sooner, Macenzie says.
Adds Michelle: “If I just got cancer, okay. But if they did something to hurt the people in this area, I should not have to be like this.”
Susan Wind says she has been approached by hundreds of people in the Lake Norman area the past year.
“This was no coincidence,” she insists. “Doctors knew something was off and did not think to make a phone call or send an email to the Health Department to see if there was an issue with thyroid cancers in kids in these ZIP codes.
“The state failed people,” she adds. “Some of the doctors failed people, too. They may not want to advocate for the health of people here, but I will.”
Many of the women have experienced hair and appetite losses. Some have gained – or lost – weight. Thyroid levels and body temperatures, in many cases, have been hard to regulate.
“My bones are ice,” says Cat. “I can’t go outside without being bundled up.”
Some of the girls have battled nausea. Taylor remembers losing her sense of taste completely. Even when it came back, it was different.
“Things I loved, I now hate,” she says.
Doctors encouraged the girls to eat sour candies to help their saliva glands function properly.
“To this day, I can’t even look at Jolly Ranchers,” Taylor says. Kathryn feels the same about Lemonheads.
Salty or seasoned foods triggered Taylor’s saliva glands, causing her jaw to lock up.
“I would get a tightening pain from my jaw to my head, and I’d just have to wait it out or walk away from the table,” Taylor recalls.
Kathryn was just a child when she was diagnosed but now lives on her own. She’s still on her parents’ health insurance, but otherwise, she pays her own bills.
“It has completely changed my life,” Kathryn says, pointing to her medical expenses, including out-of-town travel for doctor appointments every few months.
She also recently started developing cavities. Her dentist’s office deduced it was likely due to the radioactive iodine treatment, which kills the good and bad bacteria in saliva. Consequently, the dentist’s office tried to have insurance pay more toward Kathryn’s dental expenses, but the request was denied.
Kathryn said she works all the time to pay her medical expenses. And though she’s not ready to have children now, she is of child-bearing age, and she wonders what – if any – effects her thyroid journey will have on her ability to conceive and carry children.
D’Asya’s co-workers donated more than 300 hours of leave-time to her when she was fighting cancer, but she wasn’t able to work.
“I lost it and couldn’t recover it,” she says. “I hadn’t been getting paid and couldn’t afford my bills. I lost my job and lost my house and had to move home with my mom and try to adjust with everything.”
Despite all they’ve endured, the young women keep a positive perspective – and say they try to count their blessings through it all.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and something positive always comes out of something negative,” Macenzie says.
Even though she remains unsettled about the state and county having had the ability to know and warn the public about the cancer cases sooner, she says: “I thank them for making me the strong-willed person I am and for giving me opportunities I wouldn’t have had to meet so many wonderful people through this.”
Taylor credits her journey for the healthier lifestyle she lives now.
“Overall, other than tiredness, right now I actually feel better,” she says. “I’m going to the gym more, and I’m not eating junk. I care more about my health, so I feel better in that way.”
Jaime Gatton is a freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.