After her picture was posted on Facebook, Emily O’Carroll felt taken aback by the comments. Several people pointed out a lump on her neck and told her to visit a doctor to have her thyroid checked. At first, she felt hurt.
“It got me really emotional. People just said, ‘That girl should get her thyroid checked.’ They don’t know who I am. They’re not my friends,” O’Carroll, 38, of Carlsbad, California, told TODAY. “I said, ‘Hey can you delete that? Because I’m really embarrassed.'”
But then she examined her neck and realized there was a lump. Those comments helped her connect to a doctor to receive a proper diagnosis, and later, discover thyroid cancer in an earlier stage.
“It would have taken me a lot longer to go see my doctor,” she said. “If I had waited a lot longer, that nodule on my neck would have continued to grow.”
Social media comments lead to discovery
In 2017, O’Carroll, a Jazzercise instructor, participated in a Facebook Live event at the company headquarters to encourage others to join classes. She and a few others had their hair and makeup done so they snapped a picture, which the company shared online.
“During the (Facebook) live there were several comments. But then after the interview was completed Jazzercize Inc. posted a picture of the three of us,” she said. “My head was kind of extended … and on the side of my neck there was a bump.”
Several people shared comments that O’Carroll should have her thyroid checked out. While she was hurt that strangers would be so blunt about how she looked, she really took a look at her neck.
“I started checking out my neck more and necks are a weird part of your body. There are a lot of weird bumps and veins,” she said. “I had always assumed that a bump was normal and I didn’t think much of it … When I started looking I was like it is kind of a big lump on my neck.”
O’Carroll scheduled an appointment with her doctor who took blood for part of her annual exam. That’s when she learned that her bump was something more — O’Carroll had Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the function of the thyroid. The body’s immune system attacks the thyroid and it doesn’t make enough hormones. This can lead to exhaustion and weight gain. But O’Carroll had none of these symptoms.
“If you asked any of my friends or family if I seemed more lethargic they would probably say, ‘No, she seems like the exact opposite,’” she said.
She visited an endocrinologist who drained the nodule of its fluid. About four times a year, she returned to have the lump drained.
“To be honest it was more of an annoyance to me,” she said. “It was a visible reminder of my Hashimoto’s disease. It would refill and I would have to go to the endocrinologist and get it drained.”
Even though it would become large, she never had problems because of it.
“It’s cosmetic, that’s about it,” she said. “But I continued teaching Jazzercise and it is a pretty strenuous workout and I never had trouble breathing.”
Her doctor started performing annual biopsies and ultrasounds just to be sure that nodule was benign. In February 2020 she had her thyroid drained, a biopsy and ultrasound and everything was normal. She couldn’t see her doctor again until that October and when they performed the ultrasound they noticed something alarming.
“They saw a brand new cyst in the very middle of my neck,” she explained. “My nodule was always on the left side and the cyst was in the center of my neck.”
The doctor worried about the lump.
“The biopsy did come back that it was cancer,” she said.
More women than men develop thyroid cancer and it is more commonly diagnosed in younger people than other adult cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. Symptoms include:
- A bump on the neck
- Breathing problems
- Difficult swallowing
- Pain while swallowing
- Hoarse voice
While having cancer sounded scary and overwhelming, O’Carroll’s doctors reassured her.
“All my doctors said if you’re going to get cancer, this is the cancer you want,” she said. “It is very treatable, thank goodness. But it does require invasive surgery.”
Her doctors recommended that she have her thyroid removed and she agreed. She felt grateful that she did opt to have the entire thing removed because the pathology report indicated there was cancer in another spot on her thyroid.
“Had they not removed the whole thing it could have, of course, grown,” she said. “They did find one of my lymph nodes they sampled had a very small amount of cancer.”
In April she will have radioactive iodine therapy to finish her cancer treatment.
“It’s like a one and done kind of radiation treatment because it is so effective,” O’Carroll said.
She’s sharing her story so that others seek treatment when something seems off and to keep up with regular care when needed.
“I felt very fortunate .... The visible reminder that I had, caused me to visit my doctors no matter what,” she said. “My doctor told me that often if someone doesn’t have that visible reminder like I do, they just don’t come for those appointments.”