When professional opera singer Monica McGhee was diagnosed with thyroid cancer her biggest fear was losing her voice. Here she shares her story about her treatment and the road to recovery.

What led you to seek medical advice?

I discovered the lump on my neck in December 2016 when I was warming up for a concert. As an opera singer I am so aware of any changes in my neck and any different sensations. I went to see my GP that week. She was at first dismissive of me needing any tests but I pushed for a scan because of my job and the close proximity of this ‘unknown’ lump to my voice which is my whole life. Thankfully she agreed to the scan and that set the ball rolling.

We understand your greatest fear was losing your voice. Can you describe the range of emotions you experienced on diagnosis and during treatment?

I vividly remember the day my GP first mentioned that I would need to see someone for a biopsy. I just sat and cried because I was so afraid about what this meant for my voice. The day I got diagnosed I would say my initial three thoughts were: Am I going to die? Am I going to lose my voice? Am I going to lose my hair? I would say for a lot of the treatment my greatest fear was losing my voice. The idea of living the rest of my life unable to sing ever again was the worst outcome to me.

Were you able to get support from your family and friends or from the medical profession at the time?

My friends and family have been incredible through this entire journey. I am lucky to have family members who are doctors and nurses. They helped with my immediate recovery. My parents drove me home to Scotland when I was discharged from hospital so I could recover with all their help around me. In fact my brother in law, who is a surgeon, removed my staples on the sofa at home! My friends have been my rock during this, especially as the road to full vocal recovery has been incredibly tough and emotionally exhausting. I know how fortunate I am.

Where did you receive your treatment?

My surgery took place at Lewisham Hospital and after that I was referred to Guy’s and St Thomas’ to continue with treatments.

How was your experience of surgery and subsequent treatment?

I had a right hemithyroidectomy (partial removal) done as my first treatment. After that they referred me to Guy’s Hospital because my surgeon wanted to remove the other side. This would have resulted in radioiodine treatment. After months of more tests, my surgeon and I made the joint decision NOT to do any more treatment because I wanted to have the best possible shot of my voice returning to normal.

My chances of recurrence is between 5-9% and I personally felt that was a statistic I could live with if it gave my voice the best chance of going back to normal. This has also meant I do not need to rely on medication as my left hand side has managed to do enough of the work.

Have you noticed any symptoms of hypothyroidism post surgery?

I have noticed I feel the cold a lot more than I used to do, but other than that I feel like my health has returned to normal. I am an incredibly health focused person. I don’t drink often (just champagne) I go to the gym most days and I am very conscious of what I eat. I think all of these things have really helped with my recovery.

What message do you have for patients going through a similar experience to yours?

Firstly trust your own instincts with your body! I had to push for a scan only because of my job and I am so glad I did. Secondly surround yourself with the best possible people. Allow yourself moments of frustration about why this has happened to you, but do not dwell on that. I created an upbeat playlist for whenever I was feeling defeated, exhausted or overwhelmed. Even as I write, I was at hospital today with more appointments about getting my voice back to where it was three years ago. Having people who are in your corner to either let you cry, make you laugh or support your feelings is vital.

Has your experience changed your attitude towards your health and life in general?

I am definitely more in tune with my body than I ever was before. It’s hard as a singer because the lifestyle is so demanding, but I am now aware of how my neck responds to stress since the operation. So I have to try and avoid that. There has obviously been a huge impact on my singing because of where my tumour was growing, and that has been a really tough battle. I like to think I am getting there and sometimes you have to accept that you might be forever changed by an illness. I am also very aware there are so many people whose battle with cancer has had far more devastating effects than mine and so every day I remind myself to be grateful for that.

Would you have benefitted from the support and advice offered by BTF or any other patient organisation?

I have definitely felt isolated and afraid of the consequences of this illness, in particular the impact it has had on my voice and what that means for my career. I also didn’t really know who to reach out to during that time. I think a cancer diagnosis feels so overwhelming you almost feel paralysed by the reality. Having the BTF is amazing. You help people feel less alone and afraid during what can be a terrifying chapter of your life.

Photo credits: Mark Anderson

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