Margaret Juanes has been described by her medical team as a miracle. When she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in September 2012, she began a long journey that she never anticipated.
“It was a shocking moment at that time,” she says. Margaret was not expecting such a serious diagnosis because she says she never felt sick and led a healthy lifestyle.
When she first felt a lump in her throat, she didn’t think much of it. Still, she made an appointment with her healthcare provider just to be safe. When her provider told her it looked like a cyst, she was sent to get an ultrasound and a needle-stick biopsy. When the doctor came in to give the diagnosis, Margaret says she could see in the doctor’s face that something was wrong.
“’You have cancer,’” Margaret says, recalling the doctor’s diagnosis.
Margaret was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and within a week her thyroid was surgically removed. There is no effective chemotherapy for thyroid cancer, so instead, Margaret’s surgery was supplemented with radiation therapy in the form of radioactive iodine tablets.
“It makes you sick, but, you know, if its helping you, then it’s worth it,” she says of the radiation.
After the surgery and radiation, it seemed things were improving for Margaret. She was carefully monitored by endocrinologist Dr. Leslie Gamache for the next several months. Margaret’s recovery was progressing steadily.
Unfortunately, in April 2013 it became apparent that the cancer had grown back into her trachea. In fact, a large portion of her trachea was invaded by the new tumor, so surgery was planned to remove that portion of the trachea, and possibly her vocal box and vocal cords.
Margaret was angry, hurt and frustrated. Not only was it confusing that the cancer had worsened so quickly, but she did not feel prepared to undergo the additional treatment. However, her medical team convinced her that without the treatment her life was in jeopardy. Margaret came to the realization that she needed to deal with her situation, no matter how intimidating it may be.
Rose Medical Center thyroid surgeon Dr. Kimberly Vanderveen and two specialists performed the surgery. No one could assure Margaret of the outcome until the surgery was underway, so she stayed positive and let her medical team take over.
“The toughest thing to overcome is not being able to do [everyday tasks] for yourself and having to depend on people,” says Margaret.
“It was very emotionally difficult knowing that I couldn’t be the one in charge.”
Margaret’s appreciation and gratitude for Dr. Vanderveen and everyone at Rose is truly moving. At such a frightening point in her life, Margaret says she is thankful for the staff that worked to make her as comfortable as possible.
“Oh, [Dr. Vanderveen] was there every day to see me. She was so comforting. She made me feel like somebody really cared. The hospital over there at Rose—the best place you could ever go if you have to have surgery. The best. They’re the best.”
Removing the cancer would be a very difficult procedure. During the surgery, Dr. Vanderveen and her team took special care by sending multiple biopsies and lymph glands to ensure that the cancer was completely removed. Because the surgery was so involved, it took about eight hours.
When Margaret woke up, still unaware of the outcome of her surgery, she found her sister by her side. Margaret remained in the hospital for two weeks after the procedure, spending most of one week in the Intensive Care Unit. She needed a temporary breathing tube because of swelling in her neck and the fragile state of her trachea. Rose employees took special care of her during this time.
“They were always coming to ask me if I needed anything, very helpful, middle of the night… anytime I rang the bell they were always there for me. They sent me roses, get well cards…” she trails off. “The people there are very warm and caring. What I had to go through was horrifying to me, but they made it comforting… they were very attentive towards me.”
“There’s nothing I could say to show my gratitude for all my specialists, the doctors, housekeeping, the nurses—everybody,” says Margaret.
Miraculously, the surgery was extremely successful and Margaret’s voice box, vocal chords and vocal cord nerves were spared. Aside from a slight change in the sound of her voice and some scarring on her neck, Margaret has few lasting side effects from the procedure.
“I’m so grateful, I’m glad that I even have a voice,” she says.
In July 2013, Margaret finally finished treatment and began to feel better after a very hard couple of months. During her recovery, she spent one month in a neck brace. She had trouble sleeping and remembers focusing on the future, taking it one day at a time.
“It was extremely difficult. Emotionally, physically…” she says of the whole experience.
Currently, Margaret is continuing to follow up with Dr. Gamache. Things are looking good, and she remains cancer free.
“It’s hard to talk about it without crying,” she says. “It still gets me… I’ll be sitting here in my office or at home, and I’ll just start crying, just because I can’t believe that I’m here, and everything’s fine—and I’m so grateful for everything.”
For Margaret, she found strength and courage in focusing on her life and getting it back. Becoming well again and returning to the things she loves, like spending time with her family and sewing the way her grandmother taught her, is what she turned her attention to in order to stay positive.
“Don’t let your mind take over too much of what’s going on with you, because it will drive you crazy… it will. Mind over matter, I truly believe in that. I truly do,” she says. “Be strong in your mind, and it will help your body.”
She hopes her story will help and inspire others, and she has found value in sharing her journey.
“I thought it was going to be harder to talk about, but it’s not, so I’m very happy for that,” says Margaret. “I thought I was going to fall to pieces, but I don’t feel like that, so I’ve learned something today about myself. I am stronger than what I thought I was.”
The Rose “Surviving Well” calendar is a 12-month calendar highlighting our cancer services, physicians and inspirational stories from our patients. Margaret is our survivor for August.