Julie Nance, Thyroid Cancer
"I couldn’t imagine getting treated anywhere but Sylvester."
Young Mother Receives Life-Changing Diagnosis
For as long as Julie Nance can remember, she had wanted to be a mother. “It’s what I was put on this Earth to do,” she says. So when she became pregnant with her first child, she was overjoyed.
Her thoughts and prayers were filled with hopes and dreams for the little girl growing inside her. As every expectant mother does, she imagined endless possibilities for the future. But she never could have imagined what was to come.
One day in May 2008, Julie, who was 6 months pregnant at the time, caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror at work. She was pleased to see she hadn’t gained too much weight from her pregnancy. When she turned her face to the side, she noticed something else: a lump on her neck.
Figuring this “misplaced Adam’s apple” was pregnancy-related – perhaps swollen glands or other hormonal changes – she made an appointment to see her obstetrician, who quickly referred Julie to an otolaryngologist, also known as an ENT.
At first, the ENT suspected it was a cyst. But an ultrasound revealed a solid mass, which prompted a biopsy. When Julie left the doctor’s office, she went home and started researching her symptoms online. She came across several websites on thyroid cancer.
On the Friday before Memorial Day, Julie was at work when she received the news. She was six months pregnant and had thyroid cancer.
“I sat there completely stunned at how my life had changed in that one moment,” Julie says. “All I wanted my whole life was to be a mom. To find out that this experience that is supposed to be so beautiful is getting a little tarnished…” She dabs her eyes with a tissue, and her voice trails off into tears as she thinks back to her diagnosis.
Though Julie had mentally prepared herself for the possibility of thyroid cancer, she didn’t know what that would mean for her unborn child. Would she have to be delivered early? Would Julie still be able to breastfeed? She didn’t want anything to spoil her daughter’s entrance into this world. She wanted her baby to grow as much as possible in her womb so that she could start life healthy and strong.
Serendipity brought Julie to Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center where one of Julie’s close friends, another young mom, had been treated two years prior. When she started asking around for doctor referrals, she discovered that David Arnold, M.D., who grew up in the same neighborhood as her husband and was his childhood friend, was actually a renowned thyroid cancer specialist.
Dr. Arnold, director of the Jackson Memorial Hospital Otolaryngology Clinic and member of the Head and Neck Cancer Site Disease Group at Sylvester, reassured Julie that her baby would be fine and recommended that she postpone treatment until after her pregnancy. In the meantime, they would monitor the size of the tumors in her neck with ultrasounds.
“It was an interesting case for me because I had two lives in my hands instead of just one,” says Dr. Arnold.
He collaborated with her OB-GYN, Thomas Horst, M.D., a community physician based in South Miami. They discussed the treatment plan and worked together to manage the care of Julie and her unborn child.
When Julie was 36 weeks along, Dr. Arnold told her it was time. The tumors were getting larger and he needed to operate. On Aug. 4, 2008, Julie was induced and a healthy baby Piper was born. Just 10 days later, Dr. Arnold removed the cancerous tumors from her neck.
“I couldn’t imagine getting treated anywhere but Sylvester,” Julie says. “The moment I walked through the door, Dr. Arnold and his nurse Penny completely put all of my worries at ease. They sat with me and just made me feel like at the end of this whole process, I would be totally fine – mentally and physically – and I would get through it.”
The care she received and the accessibility of the hospital staff really made an impression on Julie.
“I always felt like I had a direct line to somebody if I needed them – even if it wasn’t my doctor, it was Penny or one of the other nurses. There was always someone around.”
Six weeks after her daughter was born, Julie returned to Sylvester for a radioactive iodine treatment, and as a result, she had to be kept in the hospital in isolation for three days. After she was released from the hospital, she still could not be around her newborn daughter, and so she went to stay with her in-laws for 17 days. It was the longest 2 ½ weeks of her life.
“The one thing that really got me through this entire ordeal was my daughter,” Julie says. Pictures of newborn Piper adorned the bedside table in her hospital room, keeping her company while she was isolated behind a lead wall and being monitored by Geiger counter.
After the radioactive iodine therapy was over, she was finally able to go home to her daughter and husband and forget about cancer for a while. She now returns to Sylvester every six months for a check up.
Julie’s experience inspired her to give back to the place that helped save her life. She joined the Young Philanthropists for Sylvester, a group that fundraises for cancer research.
“Julie has seen firsthand the importance of having an academic cancer center in her backyard,” says Liza Lesser, director of affiliate giving at Sylvester. “She is giving back to Sylvester by serving on various fundraising committees and inspiring Sylvester’s next generation of philanthropists.”
Two and a half years after her diagnosis, Julie is cancer free and a mother to two beautiful children. Piper, now a toddler, recently became a big sister to baby brother Pierce.
“We’re all happy and healthy. It’s a wonderful little family I’ve got for myself,” Julie says. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”