Eliza Kiley was at her friend’s birthday party in 2013, when she first realised several odd lumps on her neck.
For the high school student, she hadn’t anticipated it to be anything more than just a few harmless cysts or a cold just like the first doctor told her.
“I went to the bathroom, still at the party and I had a look, still at the party and I was like oh you can actually see them when I stretch my neck up… I could feel about seven of them,” she said.
“We went to the doctor and they said ‘oh you’re just getting sick; you’ve got the flu’.”
Four months on, in February 2014, after some detailed medical check-ups, Eliza was told what no 15-year-old wanted to hear: she had cancer, specifically thyroid cancer.
The thyroid is the butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck that regulates your hormones; the cause of thyroid cancer is poorly known but may have something to do with genetics and environmental factors.
While some people may experience no symptoms, others may feel lumps in the neck – which is what happened to Eliza.
It took Eliza weeks until she let her mum know about the suspicious lumps; another four months went by and she realised they hadn’t moved at all.
After visiting a different doctor, she was told a biopsy definitely needed to be done.
A few big needles later and after what felt like a daunting wait for Eliza and her family, the call from the doctor came about the results six days later.
If you were in this position, the questions running through your mind would be about your pure survival, as Eliza explains.
“They just said you have thyroid cancer… I just kinda sat there still and mum kinda looked at me and was like ‘Eliza?’ and I was like ‘Am I gonna die!?’,” she said.
“I was literally just worried I was gonna die, I was like thinking more about the future and I was probably thinking more about Liam and Lily [her older brother and younger sister]. I called a couple of my friends that night hoping they would tell people but they didn’t.”
Eliza didn’t want to go back to school with her friends not knowing and pretending everything was OK.
“I didn’t wanna rock up for no one to know and for me to just have to go back to normality kind of thing so I called a couple of them and they were all really positive,” she said.
The four months between the first doctor she saw and the second could have made a difference to her recovery but fortunately it didn’t.
A study in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) by Professor Ian Scott, director of Internal Medicine at Princess Alexandra Hospital, says diagnostic errors occur in as many as one in seven clinical encounters.
The MJA study says approximately 140,000 cases of diagnostic errors occur in Australia each year, with 21,000 of those causing serious harm and 2000 to 4000 deaths.
Eliza could have been a statistic knowing her circumstances but luckily she was able to endure the ugly process of recovery from a deathly illness and come out of it as a survivor.
As a young person who was in her final years of schooling – her prime time to be socialising and doing things with friends – Eliza had to be wary that it was going to be a waiting game; a long year of check-ups, major surgeries and healing.
“I was really lucky with my surgeon, she has kids as well… she understood being at school was important so we would always schedule my surgery just before school holidays so I had holidays to recover,” she said.
The survival rates of thyroid cancer are higher in younger men and women and decreases with age.
According to Cancer Australia in 2020 it’s estimated that the age-standardised mortality rate from the disease is 0.5 deaths per 100,000 persons.
Figure 1: Estimated number of new cases and deaths of thyroid cancer in 2020. The incidence of thyroid cancer is considerably higher in females than males. The overall mortality rate for thyroid cancer is very low, especially when compared with the incidence of new cases.
Being diagnosed at a young age meant Eliza’s chances of survival looked promising but things such as her social life, education and family were affected greatly at the time.
A total of three surgeries – involving driving from Warrnambool to Melbourne – meant that she missed parties because of her cautiousness about her health at the time.
“I missed 4 weeks of school but it was more my treatment that took it out of me,” she said.
Eliza is now 22 years old and in her final year of her business degree in event management and marketing at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
It has been seven years since her diagnosis and she says that her illness is definitely not going to be something that will decide what she will achieve in life.
“I’m a pretty positive person, I just try and keep on keeping on – I don’t really let my illness define who I am.”