Young Thyroid Cancer Survivor Pursues Education Goals

Written By:Stacy Simon

Coping with cancer as a teen might seem harder because of stress at school, but when you’re so young you can see your whole life ahead of you and you really want to pursue your goals.

Michelle Rodriguez

Michelle Rodriguez, 20, is determined nothing will stop her from her lifelong goal of being the first one in her family to get a college degree – not even a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. She’s on her way: Rodriguez is a third-year student studying biochemistry at City College of New York, and doing research for the Columbia University Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

“No way was I going to put everything on hold,” says Rodriguez. “I just pushed my way through it.”

In 2014, Rodriguez was nearing the end of her junior year of high school when she went to the doctor for a physical. It was just a checkup, required for school. The doctor noticed an enlarged gland in Rodriguez’s neck and sent her to a specialist, who ordered an ultrasound. That led to a biopsy and a diagnosis of Stage II thyroid cancer. “All I heard was the word, ‘cancer,’” she says. “I was emotionless; a wave of dread just went over me. I didn’t know how to react.”

Her treatment included surgery and radioactive iodine therapy, which required her to follow a salt-free diet. She says that was the toughest. “I just hated it, and my family hated it too,” she said. “I felt bad when they would eat around me and I couldn’t eat the same thing. I felt isolated. I could eat nothing with salt, which is every food in the world!”

Now that she’s completed treatment, Rodriguez doesn’t have to be as strict. But she is trying to eat more vegetables and less processed meat in order to stay as healthy as possible. “Salads are definitely a thing I never liked, but now I eat them more often,” she says.

Rodriguez missed a lot of school between September 2014 and March 2015. “Coping with cancer as a teen might seem harder because of stress at school, but when you’re so young you can see your whole life ahead of you and you really want to pursue your goals,” she said.

She says she tried to cope with her challenges by laughing every chance she got. “I love to laugh. If everyone saw me laughing, they knew it would be fine. It’s the way I cope. I’d laugh and say it would be OK. My mom took it the hardest, but if she saw I was OK – if she saw a smile on my face – she’d know I was OK and she would be OK too.”

But Rodriguez could not laugh away all her concerns. One day, she says, “I was in for a rude awakening. I thought if I was strong, everyone else would be OK. But I’d kept everything internalized until I couldn’t handle it anymore. I was so upset with my situation. My mentality was, ‘Why me, why me?’ I told my mother everything that was on my mind. I needed to cry it out, yell it out. After that, I was willing to open up to anyone asking me, and to get into how I was actually feeling.”

Her advice for others: “Open up to someone. It doesn’t matter who it is. You hold in so many emotions and so many people think they can do it on their own, they become angry or upset.”

In her job at Columbia University, Rodriguez researches many different topics, some of them about cancer. “That’s what I want to do after I graduate,” she says, “Research in cancer-specific things.”

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