Kelly Miner’s memories of childhood seem to be catalogued according to song.
Verses sung in the car made long trips with her family seem short. Rounds of “Row, row, row your boat” between Miner and her sister would send their parents into hysterics.
So, when Miner, 35, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in November, the disease was a threat to more than just her body.
“I was very concerned about potential complications (of thyroid surgery), mostly of not being able to sing anymore,” said Miner, knowing that the disease carries a 97 percent survival rate at five years.
Diagnosed with a moderately aggressive form of the disease, Miner, a five-year breast cancer survivor, was no stranger to what it means to fight cancer.
While the verses of her story are certainly unique, the refrain is the same: Kelly Miner is hardly alone when it comes to joining the ranks of young women battling thyroid cancer.
The rate of thyroid cancer diagnosis in women now surpasses all other cancers, and the incidence has more than doubled since 1990 – statistics that should receive considerable attention in January to mark National Thyroid Awareness Month.
Some assume this sharp increase is the result of new environmental threats – the use of radiation-emitting tests like CT scans, for example – but reality is far more encouraging.
“There are new technologies with ultrasound becoming much more advanced. So, you have patients with very, very small nodules who 20 years ago would have escaped diagnosis,” said Dr. Edward Stafford, an otolaryngologist at Washington Ear, Nose and Throat.
In Miner’s case, it was a followup scan to her breast cancer treatment that inspired a closer look at the butterfly-shaped gland charged with the creation of thyroid hormone, a chemical that regulates several metabolic tasks. A fine-needle aspiration biopsy followed, which exhumed cells from the nodule for microscopic investigation and confirmed her diagnosis.
“There are really no false positives for fine-needle biopsy,” said Stafford, who did not treat Miner. “That’s enough for me to start the workup for thyroid cancer.”
With this news, Kelly Miner and her husband, Chris, had a more daunting task than mentally processing a second cancer diagnosis: They had to explain cancer to the two foster children they’d been caring for since only July.
Understanding the challenges young children may have when conceptualizing time, the Miners waited until one week before the surgery to sit down with their 6-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl.
Miner carefully explained, “I’m going to have surgery like your teddy bear has to have surgery,” in reference to the boy’s overcuddled, favorite bear that had required a few repairs from Miner’s sewing kit.
Miner’s son understood and coped in a way that speaks only to the magic and resilience of childhood: He pretended that one of his other stuffed toys had fallen ill with the same sickness that his new mom had.
Mere days before her surgery, Kelly Miner performed a mock thyroidectomy on her son’s stuffed bear – an act that made the 6-year-old believe his bear, and mom, would be “all better.”
That kind of compassionate but matter-of-fact composure is a hallmark of Kelly Miner’s personality.
According to her Mon Valley oncologist, Dr. Giridhar Santebennur, Miner never broke down or asked, “Why me?” She simply wanted to know what to do next.
“She is an exceptionally brave young woman, very down to earth, and she was very calm, cool, composed,” Santebennur said.
On Dec. 17, Miner underwent surgery to remove her thyroid and the affected nodes, leaving her with a second scar to commemorate the presence of cancer and a voice still hoarse voice from the surgery.
Unsure of whether the hoarseness was there to stay, Miner considered how her life might change if her self-taught voice would be altered permanently.
As Church of the Nazarene’s youth pastor, Miner has been charged with educating the Monongahela congregation’s youth for the past three years.
“I feel more comfortable singing in church than speaking or doing anything else,” Miner said. “I use music to teach, so that would be difficult.”
The increasing number of young women diagnosed with thyroid cancer creates some very special, and feminine, concerns: the presence of scars, for one. For some women, the evidence of cancer’s invasion can cripple self-esteem, but Kelly Miner doesn’t belong to that group.
“I’m going to be the old lady in the nursing home saying, ‘You want to see my scars?’ and showing them all off,” Miner joked.
As a Christian woman, Kelly Miner doesn’t believe that God gives people difficulties like cancer intentionally, but she does think that they can be used for good. Despite her singing voice – the one she has used as a personal outlet, teaching tool and way to calm her baby girl at bath time – being in considerable jeopardy, Miner has found some sweet irony in her situation.
“(Cancer) gives me a platform to talk to people and to reach out to people who have been through difficult times,” Miner said. “It gives me a voice that I didn’t have before.”