Learn More, Do It Yourself
There was a time when Joan Shey didn't pay attention to the small butterfly-shaped gland at the base of her neck.
"I had no knowledge about the thyroid. I didn't even understand where the thyroid was and what the thyroid was - and I never knew in a million years that you could get thyroid cancer," Shey said.
Fifteen years later, Shey is cancer free and finally living the days she used to fantasize about while undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. She is healthy, a grandmother and is helping others through Light of Life, a foundation she started for individuals with thyroid disorders.
But it wasn't until after her daughter gave birth and was diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease in which the body's T-cells attack thyroid cells, that Shey found herself focused on the role of the thyroid during pregnancy, a topic that is growing in popularity on the Foundation's online support group and a motherly perspective Shey can understand.
"As a woman, it was a lot of pressure," said Shey, whose two children were young teenagers when she received her diagnosis. As a mother, "my children came before me and in a sense that kind of strengthened me because I didn't totally focus on me. I knew I had to be well to take care of my children."
Shey and her daughter are just two of the 27 million people with thyroid disorders. About half of the people with disorders have yet to receive their diagnosis.
The thyroid secretes a hormone to let the body know to speed things up or slow them down. A person's sleep cycle, a healthy pregnancy, and nail growth are all connected to the amount of hormone the thyroid produces.
Disorders can range from tiny nodules on the thyroid-most of which are benign - or the swelling of the thyroid, called a goiter, to the gland secreting too much or too little hormone. A thyroid disorder can be corrected through medication and, in certain cases, surgery.
And although many people may be unaware of their thyroid, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists is working to raise awareness, especially among pregnant women and future mothers to pay attention to their thyroids sooner rather than later.
"I think it's important to realize that the whole point to having a baby is to have a healthy baby," said Dr. Daniel Duick, president of AACE and an endocrinologist, who recommends that pregnant women take prenatal vitamins with iodine included, which "helps the mother be more efficient with iodine production."
During pregnancy, the thyroid hormone is used in the neural development of the baby. A deficiency has been proven to result in not only a lower IQ level but also miscarriages. An overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, if left untreated, can result in stillbirth, premature birth, a baby with low birth weight, or an abnormally fast heartbeat, known as fetal tachycardia.
"The thyroid is the metabolic pacesetter in the body," Duick said, noting that it is not uncommon for people to ignore symptoms of feeling tired or a little premature graying.
"Mild hypothyroidism you may not pick up," he said, "so family history will be key."
But given women's willingness to become knowledgeable about health issues, Duick believes awareness will increase.
"Women are a lot more health conscious than men," he said. "I just think women do more reading about healthy lifestyles and preventive health."
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