Perseverance and Achievement: A Thyroid Cancer Survivor’s Story

An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from a thyroid disease, mostly from an underactive thyroid known as hypothyroidism [hie-po-THIGH-roid-is-m].

Joy Cortese is one of them, having been diagnosed with thyroid cancer three years ago. Even though Joy is one of millions, her story is one of a kind.

Joy, a former flight attendant and an avid animal lover, moved with her husband, Victor, to Kentucky in 2006. They settled on a 13-acre property and enjoyed horses, gardening and being outdoors. But one day in 2008 a terrible accident occurred, and Joy was thrown off one of her horses and broke her back in two places.

After the accident, Joy spent one week in the hospital and three long months in a large custom back brace. During the first month, she was essentially unable to move and spent hours lying flat on her back and reading. Recalling those long and discouraging days, Joy explained, “I knew I could either feel sorry for myself and give up, or I could choose to embrace life and make the most of it.” After a lot of praying, Joy knew what her decision had to be. One day Joy read in a magazine about an upcoming half-marathon. Still flat on her back, and never having run before, Joy decided to pursue it. “I’m going to focus on this. I’m going to do this,” she told herself.

Although the road to recovery wasn’t easy, Joy’s determination and focus kept her motivated. She did most of her physical therapy by herself in the pool and amazed her doctors at how quickly and completely she recovered. In January 2009, as soon as she was able, Joy found a training schedule and began preparing for the half marathon. “I needed to focus on something other than what had happened,” she said. Joy’s hard work and mental toughness paid off, as she completed her first half marathon in April 2009.

But Joy’s story doesn’t end there. In the midst of her recovery and half marathon training, Joy received another piece of news – she had an enlarged thyroid, or goiter. Joy had not noticed any neck enlargement or any thyroid symptoms, attributing her recent weight gain to menopause and changes in her activity levels. But, when she went to a new gynecologist in early 2009, he immediately noticed her enlarged thyroid and ordered some tests.

Joy went through a series of tests on her thyroid, starting with blood work and followed by an ultrasound. After the ultrasound her doctor performed a biopsy, which was inconclusive regarding the presence of cancer, but Joy did have Hashimoto’s [hash-ee-MOtoes] thyroiditis [thigh-roid-EYE-tis], a common cause of thyroid inflammation, hypothyroidism and enlargement, particularly in women. Joy’s ENT physician then recommended she have surgery to remove her thyroid in case she also had thyroid cancer. Still training for her half marathon and not wanting to give up on her goal, Joy postponed the surgery for a few months. “Deep down,” she recalls, “I also think I knew that the results would not be good and wanted to put that off as long as possible.”

Soon after completing her race in the spring of 2009, Joy had the surgery and had a complete thyroidectomy (surgical removal of the thyroid). She then endured two rounds of radioactive iodine therapy to destroy any lingering thyroid cells in her body. After two full body scans that showed the presence of some thyroid cells, her most recent two scans have been negative.

Joy now takes daily medication to keep her thyroid hormone levels in the proper range, but otherwise she is living a full and healthy life. She credits her endocrinologist, AACE member Dr. Philip Morrow, for assisting with a successful treatment plan and regulating her medication. Although Joy no longer rides horses, she still owns and cares for one and is active in other ways. Joy stays fit by walking, hiking and participating in weight training, and she still runs in some races. She also enjoys vegetable and flower gardening, cooking and traveling with her husband.

Joy’s example of overcoming enormous obstacles, challenging herself to accomplish lofty goals and living a full life has been an inspiration to her friends and family. In fact, after seeing her mother go from being unable to move to completing a half marathon and defeating thyroid cancer, Joy’s daughter Maggie began running and has completed several races of her own. The two celebrated Joy’s recovery by running a half marathon in New York City together last year.

When asked what advice she would give to others, Joy says, “Get your thyroid tested. Even if a doctor doesn’t see a problem or recommend testing, ask for it and get it checked. It could save your life.”