Metastatic Papillary Thyroid Cancer: Tanaya's Story

Sometime this summer, between her sophomore and junior years at Cardinal O’Hara High School, Tanaya will spend a week alone, holed up in her bedroom. Isolated.

tanaya and family To treat her metastatic papillary thyroid cancer, she takes a dose of radioactive iodine; the summer 2013 dose will be her third. After each dose, she must go into isolation in her room at home for five straight days — no one can stay with her. At mealtimes, her mother, Teonna, rushes in with a tray and leaves immediately.

“I feel powerful when I take it,” Tanaya says, “like a wolverine.”

To pass the time, she watches YouTube, sends text messages to friends and listens to music, gospel mostly. The roughest part is eating only fruits and vegetables for the two weeks before her radioactive iodine treatment.  And it’s not a lot of fun cleaning the bathroom thoroughly every time she uses it — to reduce any chance of contaminating her family. Tanaya even keeps her toothbrush in her room.

“It’s not that bad,” Tanaya says. “Listening to gospel music gets me motivated. I just try to stay strong and keep thinking positive.”

Diagnosis of metastatic papillary thyroid cancer

Three years ago when doctors at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told Teonna that Tanaya, then a 12-year-old, had cancer, it was hard to be positive.

“Just hearing the word ‘cancer’ is crazy, especially when it’s your child,” Teonna says. “At first they thought she had Graves' disease [another condition affecting the thyroid gland], but the CT scan showed something.”

As scary as metastatic papillary thyroid cancer sounds, patients have an excellent prognosis, with a 20-year survival rate above 90 percent.

The Pediatric Thyroid Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is uniquely positioned to care for children with thyroid cancer, as well as other thyroid-related conditions. The Center integrates specialists from Endocrinology, Oncology and Surgery, with support from services such as Pathology and Radiology, to provide a comprehensive approach to pediatric thyroid disease.

CHOP clinicians have unparalleled experience in skills necessary for accurate diagnosis and effective management of pediatric thyroid disease, and a deep understanding of how thyroid conditions affect kids.

Living life to the fullest, even with thyroid cancer

Tanaya has had two surgeries at CHOP, which removed her thyroid (a total thyroidectomy) and the surrounding lymph nodes. She takes a tiny daily pill for thyroid hormone replacement, and is followed by Andrew Bauer, MD, who keeps a close watch on her thyroglobulin (Tg) level. Thyroglobulin is a protein found on thyroid cells and is used as a tumor marker in the surveillance of thyroid cancer.

“Her Tg level is high, so the cancer is still hanging around,” Teonna says. “But you would never know it.”

Tanaya sings in choirs at church and school, volunteers to help senior citizens and tutors children in reading. She’s participated in Operation Santa Claus, where her school collects gifts which are distributed to children in need. She plays volleyball.

“She never feels sorry for herself,” her mother says. “She encourages other patients at the Thyroid Center who are going through what she’s already been through.”

While some patients with metastatic papillary thyroid cancer eventually experience complete remission, others live long and active lives with stable, persistent disease. That’s a good thing, because Tanaya has big plans for her life.

“I definitely want to be a nurse,” she says. “And my first choice for a job would be at CHOP.”

Originally posted: May 2013