The power of positivity
Being told you have cancer is a life-changing moment in anyone’s book. However, when it comes after a previous misdiagnosis, you would expect the situation to be all the more difficult to accept.
However, for Kiera Mulholland, sales and marketing director at dental supply company BF Mulholland, she managed to stay positive and come through the other side still smiling.
Kiera first noticed a lump in her neck in May 2015, combined with a persistent cough that she just couldn’t shake. However, being busy with work and life in general Kiera, who was 33 at the time, didn’t go to the doctor until a few months later. Her GP suspected nodules on her thyroid and she was referred to an ENT and thyroid surgeon in February 2016. A week after her first appointment, he carried out an ultrasound-guided thyroid biopsy to determine if the nodules were cancerous.
The tests came back negative but it was decided the right hand side of Kiera’s thyroid should be removed as the nodule was pressing on her windpipe and making it uncomfortable to eat. As it wasn’t deemed urgent at the time and due to work commitments, the surgery didn’t take place until the end of June. Kiera said: “The decision was taken to remove the right-hand side even though the left-hand side nodule was more visually obvious in my neck. I didn’t feel this was a good reason to have my whole thyroid removed as this would lead to me needing medication for the rest of my life.”
However, just under a week later Kiera was told that the removed part of her thyroid had been tested and the nodule had turned out to be cancerous after all. She said: “At that stage it is a shock, but because I was already feeling so poorly with a bad infection, I don’t think it really hit home straight away.
“I’m in my early 30s and I’m the first of my friendship group to have cancer. I know many people who have been touched by cancer, through parents, or grandparents etc, but I was the first of the younger generation if you will. So, I think it was a massive shock.”
Despite being naturally outgoing and bubbly personality, at this news Kiera would have been forgiven a period of low mood and despondency. However, she took the news in her stride and made a conscious decision to stay positive, not just for herself, but for those around her as well.
She said: “I think it was harder for my friends and family to be honest. I could control how I felt and dealt with situations, but I couldn’t control how other people dealt with the news and how they would react. I asked friends and family to come and visit me so they could see how well I was doing. They could then see my positivity, I believe this helped everyone else, especially my mother, father and my two brothers.
“Everybody deals with these things in different ways and that was my way.”
The second surgery, a complete thyroidectomy, was scheduled for the following month after which it was discovered Kiera had stage two cancer, meaning the cancer had spread to other parts of her body. However, the doctors believed that it had only spread to the surrounding neck tissues and she was told that her prognosis was good.
The following month, in September 2016, Kiera had her first visit to the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital where she met her oncology specialist, Dr Fionnuala Houghton. At the same time, and as September was Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, many of Kiera’s closest friends decided they wanted to do something to support their friend and help raise awareness of and money for research into the disease. Some went sober for September and a group took on the ‘Walk All Over Cancer’ challenge which involved each member pledging to walk 10,000 steps a day through the month of September.
The initial target of £10,000 was smashed and the group managed to raise an amazing £33,000 for Cancer Research UK, MacMillan Cancer Support and the Friends of the Cancer Centre charity. Kiera said: “I was so touched. Honestly, I was an emotional wreck. It was this time last year and they had all planned their charity work without me initially knowing.
“I was diagnosed with such a rare form of cancer and I believe my friends were trying to understand, and also raise the awareness to educate others on what thyroid cancer is because it is on the increase.
“It was a very emotional time, but you just have to stay positive. It’s the only way.”
At the beginning of October Kiera was admitted to the Cancer Centre for her radioactive iodine treatment (RAI), aimed at killing any remaining cancer cells and identifying if they have spread anywhere else. The treatment involved four days in a special isolation room where, due to the radiation, she had no contact with other people. She said: “It is awful. The nursing staff can’t come in to you and you can’t pass anything out to them. So, once your dinner comes, if you don’t eat it, it has to stay in the whole time you are there. The clothes that I wore had to be burned afterwards as well.
“It is so surreal and I think the hardest part was being away from my loved ones. I had my phone and I could FaceTime but it’s not the same.”
Before she was discharged, she was given her first full body scan and then sent home to be in semi-isolation. The following day, she received a phone call and was asked to come in the next day to meet with her surgeon and oncologist. Accompanied by her parents, Kiera was told that the cancer had spread into her neck and that a third operation – a neck dissection – would be required. However, due to her high radiation levels, it was delayed until the end of November.
Despite all this, Kiera managed to keep up her levels of positivity. She said: “I was reassured from day one that the prognoses of thyroid cancer can be a positive one in spite of it being a life changing one, and I also whole heartedly believe we are not given anything in this world that we cannot handle, this was a battle I was ready to fight! I am blessed that I have a positive outlook and attitude in addition to having an amazing network of love and support from friends and family.”
A couple of weeks before her third surgery, Kiera had a PET that confirmed the cancer had thankfully not spread beyond her neck and on 29 November, she went under the knife for the third time. However, it was not to be her final surgery as, in early January this year she was admitted to hospital to have her ovary removed due to ongoing cyst issues.
A month later, on 21 February, she had a further, smaller dose of radioactive iodine to see if there were any remaining thyroid tissues or cancer cells remaining in her body. Her bloods were also sent to Holland for testing and, on 14 March she found out that she was finally cancer free.
She said: “It’s not been an easy journey, but one that has taught me so much, not least of all how blessed and lucky I am. The ‘brown letters’ do keep coming and I am currently having regular scans and bloods taken to monitor my recovery. I am also on life time medication which is reviewed currently every six weeks. Being a thyroid cancer survivor you need to work hard to get your energy levels back on track to allow for some sort of normality back in my life – I cannot wait to get a little more of the old Kiera back.
“It’s important to have goals and push yourself despite the recent events. I have gained nearly three stone in weight, but that is okay, I am learning how to adapt my body to life without a thyroid gland. It is incredible when you realise the scope of what it is responsible for in your body.”
Kiera will be on medication for the rest of her life but she insists that it is a small price to pay to be cancer free. She is still working her way up to full-time hours at BF Mulholland and she explained that she feels incredibly fortunate to be part of a family business with a team that have supported her all the way.
She said: “I am very lucky, being involved in the family business, I was able to work from home and the team would visit me at home regularly with work. If you don’t have something to focus on you could get very very down, especially with my fatigue being a real struggle at times. I had work to focus on and I could come into the office when I was up to it, it all certainly helped with my journey.”
And, with September being Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, Kiera has some words of advice: “From my experience I cannot stress enough how important it is to be kind to everyone! Everyone you meet is fighting a battle on some level.”
Kiera also outlined the things that she has learned during her cancer journey and the things that she would like to pass on:
- Check your neck – it could save your life!
- There is a ‘can’ in cancer
- Take each day at a time
- Positivity is key
- Worrying will not change the outcome
- Listen to your body – our health is our wealth!
- Scars are souvenirs you never lose
- Do not be afraid to ask questions – use Google cautiously!
- There is always someone worse off than you
- Enjoythe simple things in life
- No one fights cancer alone.
Thyroid cancer – the facts in numbers
- 3,404 – number of new cases of thyroid cancer in the UK (2014)
- 376 – deaths from thyroid cancer in the UK (2014)
- 85 per cent – survival rate (10 or more years, 2009-13, England)
- 19 – thyroid cancer is the 19th most common cancer in the UK (2014)
- 53 per cent – more than half of thyroid cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in people aged 50 and over (2012-2014)
- 139 per cent – since the early 1990s, thyroid cancer incidence rates have more than doubled (139 per cent increase) in the UK. The increase is larger in females (146 per cent) than in males (137 per cent increase)