We continue our special series featuring stories of TCC volunteer members. Ann Dreger has been a volunteer at TCC since 2003. While navigating the health system at a tumultuous time in her life after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, she turned to TCC for support and information on her condition. Today Ann continues to demonstrate her gratitude for TCC by increasing awareness for this illness and the support that exists out there; she is the Chair of the Distribution Committee, and is responsible for sending bulk packages of TCC's printed matter such as pamphlets, information cards and booklets to doctors’ offices and clinics across Canada (over 70 packages in 2011, including over 10,000 pieces). We will see that Ann has helped raise awareness for thyroid cancer in more ways than one. While her story enlightens us because she has been cancer-free for almost nine years now, her journey includes some honourable moments that merit attention.
Ann was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in January 2003; however it was back in 1998 when she first felt something was not right. Ann says she was losing more hair than usual and had ridges on her fingernails. At that time her family doctor was not concerned of any thyroid problems and during her visit did not perform any physical examination of Ann’s neck. In December 2001 Ann noticed a slight bulge on her neck so she returned to her family doctor in January 2002 and was sent for a neck scan. Ann waited months before she could see an endocrinologist and when she finally did she was referred to a surgeon. The surgeon biopsied what was a cyst on her thyroglossal duct and then Ann had to have surgery to remove the cyst. Several weeks later pathology results confirmed a papillary cancer. Ann was told she needed a second surgery to remove all her thyroid gland. Feeling uneasy about having to undergo another surgery, she decided to get a second opinion on the matter. After consulting with another surgeon at Mount Sinai who also recommended a complete thyroidectomy, Ann underwent a second surgery in January 2003.
Ann recovered fairly quickly and resumed normal activities; she was playing recreational volleyball three weeks after surgery. Several months later Ann received a dose of radioactive iodine (RAI) as a precautionary measure to destroy any lingering cancer cells. At the end of her medical trip Ann rewarded herself with the purchase of a kayak; she finds it peaceful to glide through the quiet waters.
As follow up procedure Ann has had whole body scans and visits her endocrinologist once a year to monitor her health. She goes for regular blood work to check her thyroid hormone levels and thyroglobulin count. Just a few years ago Ann had another dose of RAI; she was clear of cancer and deemed cured! When asked how she feels and if there were any side effects, Ann says her medication required some adjustments along the years which took some getting used to each time the dose changed. Ann also said she now has high blood pressure, notices changes in her skin and her hair is drier. However she doesn’t know if she can attribute these changes to her thyroid issues, the medication, or simply the aging process.
When Ann became involved with TCC in January 2003 it was in search for some outside support. She expressed that TCC is a site where you can ask just about anything and get an answer. Ann felt that people on this site understand your fears and know where you are coming from, something that may not always be as easily grasped by family members around you. Ann began volunteering at TCC on the phone lines talking to other women who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and were going through the same thing. While she was of great assistance to others, it in turn helped her just as much.
A few opportunities evolved for Ann from TCC. She appeared on the Avery Haines TV health show which ran an episode that focused on thyroid health problems such as hypo- and hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer. For the show, Ann was filmed at her home exercising and doing activities plus she and several doctors were interviewed as well. This was a unique experience for both Ann and her youngest daughter who accompanied her to the TV studio for filming. Ann mentioned that her daughter supported her through this appearance and greatly enjoyed the whole studio experience..
Ann talks about another honourable moment that transpired from a Coca-Cola contest. Since 2006 Ann had been entering pin codes from coke boxes and plastic bottles for points on the ICOKE site. One day she noticed a contest on the site so she entered her ballots every day until she came out on top. After completing a skill testing math question and writing a brief story, she was chosen to be one of the Torch Runners for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Ann believes that luck, chance, and good fate was what granted her this privilege but it seems that her perseverance also played a part.
Along with other torch runners from Peterborough, North York, and Scarborough, Ann was honoured in Aurora by the town council with a huge gathering. Ann felt great being on the route of this run. She received a white outfit including a hat and special mittens that she wore on that unique day. Most of the schools in town poured out to line the streets, cheering and waving. The torch runners were photographed and interviewed. Ann purchased the torch and has preserved all clothing pieces, news clippings and other memorabilia in a shadow box. This was a special moment for Ann and she says she will forever be united with the other torch runners from Ontario. Pictures of her holding the torch make her proud. Ann was asked to appear at other family day activities in Aurora wearing her Olympic outfit and holding the torch. She made many people happy by letting them be photographed together with her and the torch.
Ann reminisces about these memorable opportunities that evidently made a difference in her life. However it is her journey with cancer that helped her realize many things. Namely, Ann discovered her strength and ability to cope with most situations. She also discovered who her real friends are which resonates with many of us who have been sick. These are the friends who can be counted on and have an invested interest in you.
Ann’s health outcome is encouraging since she is part of the favourable statistics that show a 98% survival rate of 5 years for those diagnosed with thyroid cancer. However she cautions that this type of cancer may be more treatable than some others, it is still cancer. She wishes that doctors would stop saying that this is the ‘good cancer’ since there really is no good cancer. Having also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I can relate since countless people have told me not to worry because it’s a ‘good cancer’. As Ann says “Would you like to have it?” There is hardly anything trivial about this illness and labelling it as a ‘good cancer’ minimizes the challenges faced by patients living without a thyroid gland or diagnosed with a more aggressive form and possibly reduces the lack of public attention to this illness.
Thank you Ann for giving a public face to thyroid cancer survivors across Canada!