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Removing the Threat of Thyroid Cancer

Posted on September 21, 2022 in Blog

Fellowship-trained surgical oncologist treats thyroid cancer at Fort Sanders Regional

After a career in the United States Air Force, Jesus Navarro has developed a can-do and will-do attitude. If something needs to be taken care of, he gets the job done.

So it’s no surprise he was stoic when he received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. “I really had no big reaction. There was something in me that needed to be taken care of,” Navarro says.

In his case, he got that “something” taken care of at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.

A Growing Concern

As Navarro has moved away from military life and into retirement, he’s been pleased to swap his uniform for gardening clothes and he has discovered a gift for making things grow. Along with the tomatoes, potatoes and onions that have graced his garden through recent years, he’s become a fan of flowers.

“I like to buy flowers that are distressed and bring them back to life,” Navarro says. “I’ve had pretty good luck with that. I also like to grow flowers from bulbs.”

In December 2021, this peaceful life was interrupted by a lump growing on his neck. A Veterans Administration doctor recommended an ultrasound and CT scan, and Navarro soon received the news that the lump was a malignant tumor.

Choosing Fort Sanders Regional

Like the distressed plants he carefully nurtured, Navarro needed detailed and compassionate care to help him preserve his quality of life. That care came from Ana Wilson, DO, a surgical oncologist at Fort Sanders Regional who is fellowship-trained in endocrine surgery.

“If the cancer is fairly small and is what we call a well-differentiated cancer, we can remove either half of the thyroid or the whole thyroid depending on the size of the lesion,” Dr. Wilson says. “If there are any abnormal-appearing lymph nodes in the lateral parts of the neck, sometimes we have to perform a neck dissection to remove all of the lymph nodes on that side.”

Thyroid procedures can be delicate to perform. Dr. Wilson says the thyroid gland lies directly on top of the trachea, and there is also a risk of injury to the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

“That’s the nerve that controls the vocal cords,” Dr. Wilson says. “It has to be carefully identified during the surgery, and protected to avoid permanent hoarseness in the patient.”

Other risks include bleeding (because the thyroid is a very vascular organ requiring continuous blood circulation) and decreased calcium levels.

“The parathyroid glands lie directly next to the thyroid and they control calcium levels in our bodies,” Dr. Wilson says. “If those are damaged or accidentally removed during the surgery, it can cause low calcium levels in the postoperative period.”

Regaining Command of His Life

Navarro’s papillary (well-differentiated) cancer was removed with a complete thyroidectomy and a neck dissection to catch lymph nodes where cancer had spread. With Dr. Wilson’s advanced training in endocrine surgery and special skill in removing cancerous tumors on the thyroid, Navarro’s procedure was a success.

“The surgery went excellent, and I highly praise Dr. Wilson,” Navarro says. He also praises her approach to caring for him before and after surgery. “It was just very patient-oriented, and she has a lot of compassion and understanding.”

Navarro has been prescribed medication and vitamins to take over the function of the gland that was removed, he is doing well. Dr. Wilson says survival rates for this most common type of thyroid cancer are usually very good.

“As with all cancers, prevention and early detection are important,” Dr. Wilson says. “If a person notices an unusual lump in the neck that wasn’t there previously or starts to have trouble swallowing, or has any other concerning symptoms of compression in the neck, they should alert their doctor and think about getting an ultrasound.”