Surviving, Thriving and Singing after Thyroid Cancer

While my cancer story started out as my worst nightmare, I always like to tell people that it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I had years of thyroid issues and a strong family history of Hashimoto’s Disease and papillary thyroid cancer. Surprisingly, it was during a regular teeth cleaning that the dental hygienist noticed my newly enlarged thyroid and urged me to see my endocrinologist or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor sooner rather than later. Something instinctual told me not to waste any time, especially because the thyroid is in a physiological “hug” with the larynx, and as a professional singer and songwriter, I was exceedingly afraid of thyroid cancer and a potential surgery.

Thyroid cancer patient storyUnfortunately, my fears were realized when a biopsy of my thyroid nodules came back malignant in the late fall of 2011. My ENT doctor recommended Dr. Marita Teng at Mount Sinai without hesitation. He said she would be extremely conscious of my career-related concerns, and that she was his first choice for a total thyroidectomy.

Referral to Dr. Marita Teng for Thyroidectomy 

My experience with Dr. Teng was excellent. She is highly intelligent, confident in her approach, and handles patient concerns (of which I had so many) with care and compassion. She openly discussed all my options with me, and was honest about the very real possibility of vocal nerve damage from the surgery. She made me feel as comfortable as I could about the fact that I might wake up from the surgery with a changed or disabled singing voice, despite her best efforts and expert hands. I was able to face my surgery with hope and dignity, despite my panic. She urged me to focus on the fact that I could soon be cancer-free.

I awoke from a surgery that went well, as far as my thyroid health is concerned. We wouldn’t know for weeks or even months if my voice had been permanently affected, as there were too many other potentially contributing factors to the post-surgical hoarseness I was experiencing. Also, we were now waiting on pathology reports for cancer staging and lymph node involvement, so vocal distress was not our primary concern. To make a long story short: my cancer was advanced, stage III, and I was, in fact, suffering from vocal damage related to pitch modulation, specifically weakness of the superior laryngeal nerve. I was referred to Dr. Josef Machac, Director of Nuclear Medicine in the Department of Radiology at Mount Sinai, and received excellent care as I underwent radioactive iodine therapy in order to eradicate any remaining cancer in my body. I got wonderful recommendations for speech pathologists from the Mount Sinai team and began working in earnest to learn to sing again with the weakness.

I am thrilled to share that, just one year after my radiation treatment and only 16 months after my surgery, I was able to release an album recorded before my diagnosis with the exciting announcement to my fans that I would indeed sing professionally again, and my songwriting - now imbued with a new potency thanks to my worst nightmares coming true - was even better for the harrowing experience.

Having cancer and beating it with Dr. Teng’s help also did amazing things for my drive and ambition. I have since recorded and released a second album with my “new” voice, and I truly feel that I have conquered and even thrived from this seemingly negative episode in my life. Dr. Teng has stayed in touch via reports from my endocrinologist, Dr. Robert Yanagisawa who is also one of Mount Sinai’s excellent doctors.

Even now, years later, Dr. Teng is wonderfully supportive of my music and career, and has told me that she has played my songs for her musician mother, who loved them!! I’m always so excited to share good news with her, be it my return to singing, or the exciting news that we are expecting a baby girl this year. It’s that kind of personal care and interest that will keep me and my (growing) family coming back to Mount Sinai for years to come.

Bess McCrary