When Katherine Mech, now 33, began feeling unwell at the age of 23, she never could have known she’d spend years fighting to have her illness taken seriously.
It started with fatigue. Katherine, from Orlando, Florida, had been used to walking six miles a day with no problem, but one day felt so ‘overwhelmingly exhausted’ that she had to call her mum to pick her up midway through her daily walk.
Her mum took Katherine straight to the doctor, where she was sent for blood tests – but the results came back as normal.
Katherine then started gaining weight, slowly at first. Having recovered from anorexia, which she experienced as a teenager, she struggled with this.
But when Katherin went to the doctor, her weight gain was dismissed as the result of overeating, ‘partying’, and depression.
The assistant store manager at a jewellery store tells Metro.co.uk: ‘The physician’s assistant said I was fine and pulled out an illustration of a plate, to show me how much I should be eating.
‘She said I wasn’t a college student anymore, and I needed to stop “partying” like one.’
When she was 25, Katherine woke up choking on her own saliva.
‘I just couldn’t swallow it’, she says. ‘After a few minutes, it passed. I called the physician’s assistant the next day, and she said I probably had a throat infection.
‘I was given an antibiotic but it kept happening.
‘In ten months, I gained 40lbs even though I was living off of salads and SlimFast. She agreed to send me for more blood work but it was normal again.
‘I asked for an ultrasound and she said “Everything is fine. Let’s just up your antidepressant”.
‘I honestly thought I was going crazy. I would just sit and cry because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I knew something was wrong but my bloodwork was normal so I thought I was just being a hypochondriac.
‘I starved, tried to exercise, but I just got more and more tired. It just got to the point where I felt exhausted by the most simple things.
‘My voice would cut out while I was talking and I would choke on everything’.
After years of struggling to get doctors to listen, Katherine finally got the help she needed when she met a doctor, who advised her to demand an ultrasound for the lump in her throat.
She’s glad she took that advice.
Katherine says: ‘I went to see my mum’s doctor who told me I needed to lose weight, that I had PCOS, and that he was going to up my antidepressants for the third time.
‘He said the chance of me having anything wrong with my thyroid at my age was slim to none.
‘I told him I wouldn’t leave until I had an ultrasound and he rolled his eyes before stepping forward to feel my neck. This was the first time anyone had done it in nearly three years.
‘He paused, and then said “Okay, you can have an ultrasound. But it’s probably nothing”.’
Four days before her 26th birthday, the nurse called to tell Katherine that there was a nodule on her thyroid and that she would need a biopsy.
On 10 September 2013, Katherine was told she had advanced papillary thyroid cancer.
‘I felt relieved, and angry’, said Katherine.
‘There was a lot of anger. It felt good to know I wasn’t crazy but to know I had been made to feel that way was too much to handle.
‘I wish I had confronted the doctors or sought legal action. It was suggested to me but I was just so angry and hurt that I didn’t want to face them.
‘It made me even angrier that my GP never checked on me, but the nurse did.
‘I was just so angry all the time – but then it turned into “okay, I have to get well again”.’
Katherine underwent a total thyroidectomy, where the whole of her thyroid was removed, as well as the surrounding lymph nodes.
After the surgery, she had to have three scans to check where the cancer had spread, and went through a gruelling period of recovery.
‘I was in isolation for a week at home, unable to be within 50 feet of everyone,’ Katherine says.
‘The treatment was hard. My mum was my caregiver and went to every appointment with me. To be put into a hypothyroid state means your body has no thyroid hormone in it.
‘I couldn’t regulate my body temperature, couldn’t work more than three hours a day and I felt so weak I couldn’t lift my head.
‘The doctor told me I would feel like I was dying within four days, and it hit me on day three. I had to be put on a special iodine-free diet before I could take the radioactive iodine.
‘My hair started falling out in clumps. This was all while my neck was still healing from the surgery. I just felt awful – but the worst part was the isolation.
‘The iodine made my saliva burn my throat and I threw up the first day. I had to clean up my own vomit because my mum couldn’t be anywhere near me. I would hear my dog sit outside my door and cry and I couldn’t be anywhere near her.
‘Thanks to my surgeon, he pushed everything through and I was declared cancer-free on 27 October’.
Thankfully, Katherine is now cancer-free – but she still struggles with knowing her illness was dismissed for so long, and that there’s a chance it could return.
She currently has a nodule in her thyroid bed that has been tested inconclusive with three biopsies.
‘It’s just a constant reminder that I might not always be cancer-free’, she said.
Katherine’s surgeon believes she had had the cancer for at least ten years before diagnosis.
She said: ‘I remember he said I had the most diseased thyroid he had seen in someone under 60.
‘By the time a person shows symptoms, it means the spread has started. Being diagnosed earlier would have probably prevented spread as well as the need for radioactive iodine. I might have just been cured with surgery’.
Katherine has also been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and hypothyroidism. Due to her symptoms being dismissed for so many years, Katherine’s weight gain caused ‘numerous hormone imbalances’, including PCOS.
She said: ‘I am now infertile and have to control the PCOS with birth control, as well as watch my sugar and insulin levels. We found out that the thyroid cancer masked severe thyroid disease.
‘I’m now on Synthroid for the rest of my life to control post-surgical hypothyroidism. I also get tested every six months for parathyroid disease, calcium metabolism and prediabetes.’
Katherine believes she was misdiagnosed because she was a young woman with mental health issues.
‘I think my mental illnesses made them think I was overreacting,’ she said. ‘My surgeon and endocrinologist were both shocked. Neither of them could believe how advanced it was because it isn’t common.
‘My surgeon advised me to take legal action and I really wish I had.
‘Thankfully my colon was treated with the radioactive iodine. I haven’t had any lingering issues.
Right now the biggest concerns are the potential effects of radiation. I was told I am now more likely to develop cancers later in life – more specifically, leukemia.’
Katherine says that the impact her experience has had on her mental health is ‘hard to describe’.
For the first five years, she was just happy to be cancer-free. She has lost the weight she gained, and ran a 5k to raise money for cancer on the fifth anniversary of her surgery.
But now there’s a lingering anger that she has to face – and the fear.
‘The fear is something no one warns you about,’ she said.
‘My biannual appointments are so scary. Every time my voice is hoarse or I feel too tired I get scared.
‘The worst thing is that I will never trust doctors again. I trust my endocrinologist but that’s pretty much it. I have a hard time seeing a GP because I never trust them.
‘I just get these flashbacks of my doctor telling me I was fine, that I needed to lose weight and up my antidepressants. It’s like a trauma and I have dealt with it by talking to a therapist.
‘I’m actually going for a GP appointment next month and [my therapist] is helping me come up with coping strategies.’
Katherine says that the biggest advice she has for anyone else who feels they aren’t being listened to, or are being misdiagnosed, is to ‘not be afraid to be loud’.
She adds: ‘I knew there was something loud but I was afraid of offending people who were supposed to know better.
‘I was scared that people would think I was just being a jerk. So now I tell people to ask for second opinions.
‘I say to be loud and demanding because you know your body better than anyone.
‘If a doctor won’t listen, make them listen or find someone who will.
‘We’re taught as women to not fight or be loud – but we have to fight for ourselves.’
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