A chance visit to the Emergency Department (ED) led to life-changing news for patient Candace Miller.
In September of 2019, Candace woke up in the middle of the night with a very strange and concerning feeling on the right side of her head. Her husband took her to the ED at London Health Sciences Centre’s Victoria Hospital.
At first, the ED doctors and nurses suspected a stroke. They performed a CT angiogram to check her blood vessels for blockages and referred her to a neurologist at the Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) clinic.
No signs of stroke showed on the neurologic scans but they did detect a nodule on Candace’s thyroid. They ordered a follow-up ultrasound, though Candace wasn’t worried because she had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism in the past — a condition where your thyroid glad doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones.
Fast-forward to December when Candace, who has a five-year-old daughter, was preparing to host her extended family and stepsons over the holidays, her health scare a distant worry. The day before everyone was expected to arrive, Candace’s husband returned from the mailbox with a letter for her. She tore it open and the words cancer immediately jumped off the paper, causing her heart to sink to her stomach. It was a referral letter to the Head and Neck Cancer Clinic at LHSC. The ultrasound had revealed that the nodule was “highly suspicious" and needed to be biopsied through a procedure called a fine needle aspiration.
“My appointment was on January 31, so from December 20 to January 31 were some of the darkest days of my life,” recalls Candace.
The holidays came and went under a cloud of anxiety. In January, Candace found solace in her work until the day of her biopsy and follow-up appointment. Dr. Kevin Fung delivered the news to her on a cold, mid-February afternoon. She had thyroid cancer.
He assured her it appeared to be in early stages and was highly curable through surgery, which would be scheduled within three months so they could remove the mass before it spread. A few weeks later, the world as we know it was turned upside down as COVID-19 spread through the population and led to mass lockdowns. Fearing major delays in surgeries, Candace knew she’d have to advocate for herself then more than ever.
“I was so scared because, looking back, my thyroid issues started in 2018,” Candace says. “So I’m counting in my head of how long I could have had this and just wondering how much it’s growing by the day.”
She remained in frequent contact with the clinic and, thankfully, got a call in May — her surgery was booked for May 29 — just 11 days past the three-month window, which Candace says “was like winning the surgery lottery.”
Dr. Fung removed the nodule and was pleased to inform Candace at her follow-up appointment that they had removed all the tumour tissue. She was a cancer survivor.
Though Candace is grateful her cancer journey was a short one, she says the experience has changed her profoundly. At each one of her appointments, she would sit in the waiting room staring at the Million Dollar Match fundraising poster until she felt compelled to ask Dr. Fung how she could help.
"Sometimes I think you have to go through some really terrible things in your life to realize what you're meant to do and how you're supposed to live your life moving forward to be able to do things right,” Candace says.
She is channelling this passion into giving back by donating her time and business acumen to help the clinic write grant proposals, fundraising through events to support head and neck cancers, and pouring her normally well-guarded heart out to share her story in hopes of inspiring others. “I feel that there's power and strength in sharing even the most common stories,” Candace says. “I was lucky because it was caught early, but that’s not the case for everyone.”
She adds that “there was something special” about the ED nurse who cared for her last September. The nurse had flagged Candace’s case and ensured she got further testing.
“Had I not gone to the ED that day, I’d probably still be sitting here not knowing I had thyroid cancer,” Candace says. “So I would love to see there be more awareness of these kinds of cancers so people can know what to watch for, go to their doctors and advocate for their health.”