Kristin Freeze, 35, fell sick with a sore throat and one swollen gland three weeks after delivering her first-born in 2014, and she assumed it was strep throat.
A mother is fighting to stay alive for her three-year-old son after she was diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer just weeks after giving birth to him. But a scan revealed a malignant tumor the size of a baseball had been growing in Kristin’s thyroid for possibly five years and spread to her other organs.
Despite a 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor and lymph nodes, cancerous cells still live in her body. Now, Kristin has to travel 500 miles from her home in Mississippi to a Texas cancer center every six months to monitor tumor growth, and she is sharing her story as a warning to others.
Kristin Freeze, 35, was diagnosed with stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer just weeks after giving birth to her now three-year-old son. Within days of her diagnosis, Kristin underwent a complete neck dissection to remove the tumor and 18 lymph nodes, but still has cancerous cells in her body. Kristin was diagnosed with stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer just days after her initial doctors visit.
She said she had been experiencing a sore throat and occasional stomach pain but had no obvious indication that she had the most advanced form of cancer. When the doctor felt the lump in her neck, it became clear to him the growth wasn’t from a swollen gland.
He sent Kristin for a scan that determined the lump was a cancerous tumor.
‘I just heard “cancer” and I thought I was going to die. I was terrified. I had a new baby and he needed me,’ she told Women’s Health.
Within four days of her diagnosis she was in surgery for a complete neck dissection.
Kristin said that doctors told her a small incision would remove her thyroid.
‘Instead, the surgeon cut open my neck practically from ear to ear after he discovered the cancer had spread,’ she added.
Surgeons removed 18 lymph nodes, 11 of which were cancerous, and a tumor that had consumed her right vocal chord. While surgery is usually successful in treating stages 1 and 2, stage 4 is too far along to completely remove all of the cancer.
Nerve tissue was cut during the surgery leaving Kristin unable to move her right arm, and most importantly hold her new baby. The mother from Mississippi travels to Texas with her husband (pictured) for full-body scans to monitor the disease and check that no tumors have grown
Kristin has one of the rarest forms of thyroid cancer known as medullary. It accounts for four percent of thyroid cancers and is different from the other three forms because it begins in the C-cells in the thyroid gland.
Typically, the disease is derived from the cells that make the thyroid hormone.
THE FOUR TYPES OF THYROID CANCER
This is the most common type found in more than 70 percent of thyroid cancer patients. This cancer usually does not grow very fast and does not spread quickly into surrounding tissue.
This type makes up 10 to 15 percent of thyroid cancers. Follicular cancer can travel through the bloodstream and into other areas of the body, such as the lungs or bone.
This type accounts for four percent of thyroid cancers. It is more likely to develop if there is a family history (others in the family have it) of this type of cancer.
The rarest form found in about two percent of thyroid cancer patients. Anaplastic cancer is a fast-growing cancer, spreading quickly into surrounding tissue. Treatment is the least effective in this type of cancer.
However, C-cells make a hormone called calcitonin to regulate levels of calcium and phosphate in the blood. While the average amount of calcitonin for women is about five picograms (one-trillionth of a gram) per milliliter, Kristin’s was over 25,000 pg/ml before surgery.
After surgery, her calcitonin was reduced to 200 pg/ml, which meant cancer cells were still present. Her endocrinologist said she had only seen this type of thyroid cancer once before and did not know what she could do for Kristin.
The doctor referred her to University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, 500 miles away from her Brandon, Mississippi, home.
Because thyroid cancer does not respond well to chemotherapy, Kristin’s treatment is to have a full-body CT scan done every six months in Houston to monitor tumor growth on her organs and in tissue.
She travels to Texas with her husband who she said has calmed her nerves throughout the ordeal. After her first visit the scan showed a spot on her liver that has not grown.
Another scan picked up a spot at top of her spine, but doctors have continued to reassure her that everything is stable.
‘As long as these tumors aren’t growing, I take that as good news,’ Kristin said.
The cancer will eventually start to spread, but Kristin is hopeful that by the time that happens, new treatments and clinical trials will be available to increase her chances of survival.
She remains positive and said ‘cancer is something that happens’. This experience has made her wonder that if the doctors would have found the cancer sooner, if she would have had her son.
Kristin is adamant on spending all of her time with her three-year-old son and said: ‘Maybe things happened the way they were supposed to.’
She said: ‘I don’t think anything bad will happen, but if it did, I’d want my son to have fond memories of me, to know who I was.’
The cancer will eventually start to spread but for now Kristin is adamant on spending all of her time with her son while she can