The Thyroid Cancer Symptoms I Ignored—But You Shouldn’t

Updated: Jun. 30, 2021

My sneezing, coughing, and wheezing seemed like springtime allergy symptoms—but they turned out to be thyroid cancer.

Christine Coppa thyroidCourtesy Christine Coppa

In the spring of 2014, I started to feel under the weather. Since it was late April, I pegged all of my symptoms as allergies. I always experienced congestion, a scratchy cough, and watery eyes this time of year, when the smell of fresh-cut grass takes over and cherry blossom petals whirl like pink snow in the sky.

As a busy, working single mom with a five-year-old in kindergarten, I put off a trip to the doctor and stocked up on cough and eye drops, tissues, and allergy pills instead.

The meds didn’t help. Was it a cold, I wondered? Or maybe I need allergy shots, I thought in between sneezes. It wasn’t until a warm and dusty evening on the T-ball field watching my son that I finally got worried. He smacked the ball with all of his might and I let out a loud cheer: “Go, buddy, go! Run!”

That’s when I started coughing and couldn’t stop. It was different than a tickle because I found myself struggling for breath. I was wheezing. I panicked, which only made the cough worse. A friend handed me a bottle of water and asked if I was OK. I struggled to take a sip, but thankfully got the water down. (Here’s a story about how one man’s lingering cough turned out to be lung cancer.)

The next day, I went to an urgent-care clinic on my lunch break. I explained my head and neck symptoms—coughing; stuffy, drippy nose; shortness of breath; and most recently a dull earache. The doctor dismissed my concerns: “Adults don’t get ear infections.” Since my ears weren’t red, I didn’t have a fever, and the strep test was negative, he told me I had bad springtime allergies. “The pollen out there is mighty feisty this year.” He prescribed an inhaler.

I filled the prescription and diligently used the hand-held device, but it didn’t help. In fact, I just got worse.

Almost two months later on a hot day in June, my doctor discovered a lump in my neck. She was surprised I didn’t notice the lump, which felt like a hard, plump grape. She ordered a head-and-neck ultrasound that revealed a four-centimeter mass covering the entire right side of my thyroid.

The thyroid gland is located in the front part of the neck, just below the thyroid cartilage you know as the Adam’s apple. This butterfly-shaped gland produces hormones that regulate your metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, brain development, and body temperature. There are many ways to keep your thyroid happy.

I ended up with a serious thyroid cancer diagnosis—follicular variant of papillary carcinoma. I needed a fine needle biopsy and two invasive surgeries (one to remove the mass and right side of my thyroid and the other to remove the left side and a cluster of lymph nodes.) I underwent radiation next and was put on medication and under surveillance (blood labs, ultrasounds, and scans) for my lifetime.

In April, I reached my five-year-remission finish line without a reoccurrence. I’m happy to say I survived, but it’s no picnic living without a thyroid. After all, I had a God-given gland removed from my body.

I keep a positive attitude, exercise, and eat healthy. Every day, I pop two pills since my body can no longer produce the necessary hormones. However, I often wonder if things would have turned out differently if I paid closer attention to my symptoms. Maybe the tumor wouldn’t have spread to my lymph nodes. Perhaps surgeons could have removed the tumor minus my thyroid.

I try not to waste time thinking about the what-ifs and I’m grateful my cancer was caught in time and treatable. The scar on my neck is no big deal and it actually reminds me how strong I really am—and to always pay attention to my body.

A cough that won’t quit

The barky, dry cough I had for weeks was an indicator I had a tumor in my neck. “A persistent cough can be due to a thyroid mass pressing on the trachea or the windpipe,” says Tom Thomas, MD, director of head and neck reconstructive surgery and transoral robotic surgery at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey. He notes a cough by itself is not an indication that someone has a thyroid tumor. However, if you have a cough that won’t go away and get it checked out by your doctor.

Choking on food

I was at my desk, munching away on a bag of carrots, when I found myself unable to swallow or cough the vegetable up. My eyes started to water and I definitely freaked out. Luckily, my water bottle was nearby and I got the carrot chunk down.

“The thyroid gland sits in front of the windpipe, just below the voice box,” says Christopher Fundakowski, MD, head and neck cancer surgeon at Temple University Hospital. He says that as nodules grow, they may begin to push on the windpipe and esophagus, narrowing the passageway.

Gasping for air

The T-ball incident was the scariest symptom of my thyroid cancer. “Difficulty breathing can be associated with both thyroid cancer and large thyroid goiters,” Dr. Fundakowski says. “In the case of thyroid cancer, I worry about the tumor invading into the windpipe.” He adds that thyroid cancers will occasionally grow fairly rapidly and squeeze or push on the windpipe, which can cause shortness of breath—particularly when the patient is active, breathing rapidly for any reason, or lying down.

Voice changes

Ever have laryngitis? I sounded hoarse for a couple of weeks leading up to my appointment with my internist. However, I blamed my raspy, cracking, whispery voice on the cough that wouldn’t quit and post-nasal drip. I was wrong. The thyroid gland sits below the larynx, so if a nodule is pressing on the voice box, it can cause hoarseness or voice changes, according to Sandeep Samant, MD, chief of head and neck surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

That out-of-the-blue earache

My weirdest symptom was mild ear pain. I had my last ear infection when I was seven years old; then, at age 34, I was taking Motrin and having my ear examined by a doctor. Ezra Cohen, MD, associate director of the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health, says this is due to the fact that the long nerve that supplies sensation to the ear and also runs down the neck—the vagus nerve—passes right by the thyroid. “Sometimes the signals can get crossed in the brain and people feel ear pain when there is something going on in the neck,” says Dr. Cohen.

The lump

I never felt it, but that’s not unusual, say the experts: “Neck and thyroid self-examination is not typically taught or suggested to women because thyroid cancer is much less common than breast cancer,” says Erik Cohen, MD, chief of Head and Neck Oncology at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center in Morristown, New Jersey. “It is advisable to have a thyroid examination during a yearly physical examination by your primary physician, but you can examine your own thyroid by feeling just above the collarbone on either side of the trachea with your fingertips. Look out for any swelling or lumps.”

I didn’t see the bump, either, but some people do—this woman spotted her thyroid cancer in the mirror. “One might notice a lump if it is in the front part of the thyroid,” Dr. Thomas says. “There shouldn’t be any visible or palpable lumps in the neck, so if you feel a lump, see your physician.” He explains that lumps tend to be smooth and rubbery to the touch, but can also be hard.

Thyroid cancer is on the rise

According to the American Cancer Society, the chance of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer has tripled over the last three decades—incidence is rising faster than any other type of cancer. Some good news: Lumps in the thyroid are common, and the majority are benign. Still, learn from my experience: If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor right away, in addition to these other cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore.