July 29, 2019
Lauren Shields, a 39-year-old mother of four, was visiting her gynecologist for a routine annual exam in July 2018, when she left with some unsettling, unexpected news. Her doctor felt a lump at the base of her throat and urged her to have it checked out.
An ultrasound soon confirmed that Lauren had a suspicious nodule on her thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck that produces hormones that control your metabolism.
Afraid of a possible cancer diagnosis, Lauren, a fourth grade teacher who lives in Little Silver, New Jersey, assumed she’d find a doctor in New York to treat her.
“When it comes to cancer, a lot of people in my area assume that New York has the best of the best, and that’s just where you go,” she says. “That’s always where I thought I’d go if I got cancer.”
But her gynecologist recommended she contact Michael Sullivan, M.D., MHS, FACS, an endocrine surgeon at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, located about 15 minutes from Lauren’s home. Dr. Sullivan had a strong reputation for being not only one of the best surgeons in his field, but also one of the kindest.
“From the moment I met him, I knew he was our guy,” Lauren says. “He explained things in plain language, drew pictures so we could understand, answered every question we had and was so down to earth.”
Lauren’s husband of 12 years, Greg, also hit it off with Dr. Sullivan, who wore his hospital ID on a Philadelphia Eagles lanyard. Greg grew up just outside of Philadelphia and is a die-hard Eagles fan. While the two men bonded over their mutual love for the NFL team, they also helped calm Lauren’s nerves.
“I tend to get nervous, so I appreciated how relaxed he was—how we could all still laugh at things,” Lauren says.
But Dr. Sullivan wasted no time. He immediately recommended that Lauren undergo a fine needle aspiration—a type of biopsy—to check for cancer. Though Dr. Sullivan assured her that the majority of these biopsies come back benign, Lauren wasn’t so lucky: It was cancer.
Multidisciplinary Course of Action
But Lauren felt fine. Why hadn’t she noticed any signs or symptoms?
Unfortunately, symptoms of thyroid cancer are often silent and tumors are typically only detected through imaging or a thorough medical practitioner’s exam. Symptoms can include a lump on the neck, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or a change in voice.
Lauren’s mother was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2016 after experiencing a change in her voice. Her mother, who passed away in 2018 from an unrelated illness, sounded like she had laryngitis for six weeks before seeing a doctor. While genetics play some role in developing thyroid cancer, environmental factors and other unknowns also contribute.
In August 2018, Dr. Sullivan performed a total thyroidectomy on Lauren, removing all of her thyroid and the lymph nodes around it. The operation was a success, and Dr. Sullivan says Lauren was the ideal patient.
“She was a particularly thoughtful person, an active participant in her own health care and quite knowledgeable about her disease,” he says. “She showed remarkable poise throughout, which was impressive, and she had wonderful family support.”
Post-surgery, Lauren had a sore throat but said the surgery wasn’t bad.
“Just knowing the cancer was out, it was all worth it. And now you can barely see my scar,”
After the surgery, Dr. Sullivan met with the hospital’s tumor board, a group of surgeons, endocrinologists, radiologists, oncologists, hematologists and pathologists who gather every other Wednesday to review cases and determine a plan for care. This multidisciplinary approach ensures that they treat the whole patient, not just the disease.
“We discuss each patient in detail and create a plan that can be implemented in a timely manner so we can eliminate what’s most stressful for patients: the waiting and unknown,” he says.
At their meeting, Dr. Sullivan and his team, which includes Danielle Lann, M.D., an endocrinologist at Jersey Shore, determined that Lauren did not require radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy, a treatment commonly used for advanced thyroid cancers. Dr. Lann carefully considers each patient’s demographics, lifestyle and cancer prognosis when making this recommendation.
Through regular ultrasounds and blood work, Lauren’s doctors have kept a close eye on her progress. With the help of a daily thyroid medication, she is happily back to normal life and feeling great.
“Everything has been smooth sailing since,” Lauren says. “I’m tired at times, but I think that’s just life with four kids. It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
After quarterly visits with Dr. Lann and Dr. Sullivan during her first year post-surgery, she’ll see them every six months for a year, then annually. Though it means taking a thyroid replacement pill each day, and regularly checking in with her doctors, Lauren feels lucky to have survived and is willing to do anything to stay healthy.
Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Lann stress the importance of a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to thyroid cancer to ensure each patient achieves the best possible outcome.
Learn about our comprehensive, compassionate approach to thyroid cancer care.
Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Lann practice in Neptune. To make an appointment, call 732-776-4770.
The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.