Meredith Hunt of Clintonville never thought she might one day be treated by the same healthcare team that she serves on at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
But that’s what happened after she was diagnosed in 2013 with papilliary thyroid cancer (PTC).
Hunt, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) speech pathology manager with the head and neck cancer team since 2012, believes that her bout with PTC has been in some ways beneficial.
Not only did she receive the multidisciplinary care she typically helps provide, but she has become a better clinician with a greater perspective on patients and a reinforced conviction that they are supremely served by the subspecialized cancer experts at the OSUCCC – James.
“One of the biggest benefits of The James is that we have so many oncology subspecialists who treat only one type of cancer all day, every day,” Hunt says. “They know all about it, they are experts in the protocol, and if surprises should arise, they can deal with them.”
Hunt, an Arizona native who came to Ohio State in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in speech pathology, says her cancer journey began when she noticed a small lump on her lower neck. Having no other symptoms, she thought little of it for a while, but a few months after she started working at the OSUCCC – James, she established primary care for herself at the Center for Women’s Health, where a nurse practitioner conducted a thorough examination, noticed a thyroid nodule and ordered lab tests (blood draws) that produced essentially normal results.
Still, the nurse practitioner referred Hunt to Laura Ryan, MD, an endocrinologist at the Center for Women’s Health. After Ryan ordered a biopsy that came back suspicious for PTC, Ryan referred Hunt to Amit Agrawal, MD, a specialist in head and neck oncology and in facial and reconstructive surgery at Ohio State, where he also is a member of the OSUCCC – James.
“I was shocked,” recalls Hunt, who was 31 at the time. “You never think it’s going to be malignant, and I had a kind of professional disconnect. I thought, “I’m a young, healthy person; why would I have thyroid cancer?’”
She and her husband, Ryan, met with Agrawal—her colleague on the head and neck cancer team—who arranged for surgery in which he removed the nodule and had it immediately tested for malignancy. When it tested positive, he removed her entire thyroid in the same procedure.
“Being the wonderful person and physician that he is, Dr. Agrawal takes a strong personal interest in his patients, as does everyone on our team,” says Hunt, noting that her “perioperative care also was excellent” during her one-night postsurgical stay at The James.
Afterward, under the care of her endocrinologist, Hunt was placed on medication that she must take for the rest of her life to replace the hormones normally produced by the thyroid. Thyroid hormones help control such things as heart rate, body temperature and metabolism.
For the first few months after her surgery, Hunt had blood work done until her thyroid hormonal balance was restored. She also had postsurgical radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy to target any remnant thyroid tissue and destroy any cancer cells that were not surgically removed.
Hunt says this involved drinking a dose of RAI in liquid form from a lead canister, then being tested with a Geiger counter “to see how much radiation you’re emitting so they’ll know how long you need to be isolated at home,” which for her was only a couple of days.
Her cancer had not metastasized, and she required no chemotherapy. Since her surgery, the medication has kept her blood and thyroid hormone levels under control, she has kept working, and in February 2015 she and her husband had a son, Davis.
“I feel like my cancer experience has made me a better clinician,” she says, “especially for patients being treated by our team for the same cancer I had. I could always tell them what to expect, but after actually being treated for it I can be more precise about symptoms, surgery and the effects of treatment. I have more credibility and can personally relate to their concerns.
“And I’m kind of like our clinic’s default scar model,” she smiles, referring to the barely perceptible mark left by her surgical incision. “A lot of patients really worry about that.”
Drawing from her experience, Hunt says the most important advice she can give patients is to “make sure that whomever you’re seeing for whatever kind of cancer you have is a specialist in just your particular disease. You want a surgeon or oncologist who regularly does exactly what you need to have done for your individual cancer.
“That’s what we have at The James,” she adds. “Our team functions like a smoothly operating machine that runs with an abundance of patient compassion.”