Joan Haig was a lecturer in African History when she received her thyroid cancer diagnosis. She had to leave her job – but her diagnosis sent her on an unexpected path to becoming a children’s author.

Joan’s debut ‘Tiger Skin Rug’ was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal and will be published later this year (2021) in the USA, China and Taiwan.

How was your cancer initially discovered?

While at my local doctor’s surgery for something else, my GP checked my neck to feel my pulse. Thankfully, she found it – but she also found a lump. Diagnosis took some time – I had nine Fine Needle Aspirations (FNA) before the cytology tests flagged up papillary cancer of the follicular variant.*

Did you know much about the thyroid and thyroid cancer before diagnosis?

Next to nothing – it was a steep learning curve.

What did your treatment involve?

I had a total thyroidectomy (surgical removal of the whole thyroid gland). The operation took six hours and went well, but while in the recovery ward I had internal bleeding, so was put under general anaesthetic a second time to have the bleeding stopped and incision restitched. I was told after the surgery that the tumour was the size of a plum, and that the cancerous cells had spread. Several months later I underwent radioactive iodine treatment.

Can you tell us how your cancer diagnosis, and aunt’s dementia diagnosis, inspired you to write your book?

My aunt had been dreaming up a children’s book in her head for years, but she didn’t ever write it
down, and then the story was stolen by dementia. I was visiting my aunt regularly in her care home, and although I didn’t know the plot of her story, I knew its title – ‘Tiger Skin Rug’. One of the side effects of my thyroid cancer diagnosis was a determination to write something for my own children.

I began with my aunt’s jewel of an idea – a quest with a magical tiger!

How did your diagnosis affect those around you?

My husband is an academic and his approach was to learn as much about the thyroid and thyroid cancer as possible by reading published studies and journal articles. We talked openly to our two boys, who were five and seven at the time, but we also worked hard not to telegraph any anxiety their way. Focusing on learning about the cancer and being busy with the children helped keep things positive. My family and friends were hugely supportive, although sometimes more worried than I was because they knew less. Not knowing is sometimes the hard part.

Are you receiving ongoing treatment and how do you feel now?

I have a thyroid function test every 3-6 months – it’s been a struggle to find the right balance of thyroxine. I’ve had some extreme swings between having too much or too little – both come with less than glamorous side effects. I’m hopeful we’ll get it right, though most people do.

Did you find the BTF’s resources helpful?

Yes. Most people don’t have the time, resources or geeky husband to read the academic papers – and the work of BTF means you don’t have to have those things. The information and the way it’s presented means answers to tricky questions are easily found. The information about the treatment process was particularly helpful and reassuring.

Was there anything you found particularly difficult in diagnosis/treatment?

The FNA was not pleasant – but concentrating on breathing and picturing cloudscapes helped. The ‘not knowing’ at the beginning is tough. As soon as there was a diagnosis, I felt oddly reassured – I knew a treatment plan would follow.

Do you have a message for anyone diagnosed with thyroid cancer?

If you can, try to focus on any opportunities that your change in circumstances offers. I lost my job, faced financial stress, had my confidence shattered and had to readjust to constant hormone balancing. But my diagnosis was also a chance to start anew: to change my career direction, focus on my family and begin writing fiction.

Be kind to yourself and treat yourself to something small after every appointment. Stay strong and if you can’t, make sure you stay strongly supported. The British Thyroid Foundation can help you if you feel alone.

*A form of papillary thyroid cancer, which usually grows very slowly

Please see our thyroid cancer resources for more information and details of our support network

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