Mom story: I had thyroid cancer

Dec 6, 2012 at 11:00 a.m. ET

Two years ago Amber Skipper, then 28, of Westfield, Indiana, thought she had it all raising her two little girls, with her loving husband, Ryan. But her world came to a halt when she learned she had thyroid cancer — an often treatable yet hard-to-detect cancer. Cases are increasing and medical researchers aren’t sure why, but Dancing with the Stars co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet recently revealed her thyroid cancer diagnosis which is helping to bring more attention to the cancer that’s three times more common in women than in men. Read how Amber fought against thyroid cancer while juggling young kids.

by Amber Skipper
as told to Julie Weingarden Dubin

In the fall of 2010, I was playing on the floor with my kids while watching a Colts football game. Audrey was 3, and Hailey was 1. Hailey reared back and head-butted me in the neck. Little did I know at the time that was a blessing in disguise. My neck began to swell; I couldn't talk or eat. That next day I went to the doctor and he decided to order an ultrasound. Hours later I got the dreaded phone call that my doctor suspected cancer.

I remember those words like it happened yesterday. I broke out in a hard, sobbing cry for what felt like lasted no more than a minute, then I went straight into fighting mode. I decided right then that with God's help and strength I was going to do everything I could to beat this! I was going to see my precious babies walk down the aisle on their wedding day and I was going to grow old with Ryan.

Fighting cancer with kids

Approximately 15 days after I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I was admitted in the hospital to undergo a seven-hour total thyroidectomy which left a scar from one side of my neck to the other. My surgeon found a couple of tumors and removed 113 lymph nodes of which 20 percent were cancerous. The surgery was extensive but I felt blessed to have a wonderful surgeon and surgical staff at the Indiana University Health Simon Cancer Center.

Following four days in the hospital, I came home and was on bed rest for two weeks. I then went through radioactive iodine treatment and had to be in isolation in my room for seven days. During this time I couldn’t care for my children, but was blessed with family who took wonderful care of them. I Skyped with my girls a lot during my isolation, but it was incredibly difficult to see their smiling faces through my computer and not be able to hold them.

Trying to care for two little girls was especially difficult with a cancer diagnosis. All of a sudden our seemingly peaceful life became filled with doctor appointments, various medical tests, biopsies, and surgery plans. We tried to make our days as normal as possible for them, and Ryan and I tried not to let it show how terrified we were, but you could tell they were very confused. All they wanted was for Mom to play and wrap their arms around my neck, but the more tests I was put through the more sore and tired I became. It was increasingly difficult to be an active mom, so every chance I got I told my babies how much I love them and showered them with hugs and kisses.

Living cancer-free

Ever since the day I was told I had cancer, I dreamt of hearing that I was cancer-free. That day came after my radioactive iodine treatment. I had a whole body scan and it showed no cancer! I now have six month checkups with my endocrinologist to make sure the cancer doesn't return.

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Living without a thyroid, which controls body temperature, energy and mood, can be very challenging. I’m constantly checking my thyroid levels to make sure I’m not in the hyperthyroid or hypothyroid state. I’ll rely on a thyroid hormone replacement pill every day for the rest of my life. But I’ll count my blessings that I’m still here to be a Mommy and watch my children grow.

I always thought I was thankful to God for my life, but now going through cancer I find myself even more grateful for each day with my family and knowing how short and precious life truly is. I kept a journal during my cancer treatment. It was a journal of hope and determination during a difficult time. My hope is when they’re older and they are going through a challenging situation that they can see how I handled my thyroid cancer and draw strength from it.

Being a mother is an amazing gift and has humbled me in many ways. It definitely brings out my faults as well as my strengths as a person and encourages me to be better. I take great responsibility in raising my little girls to be strong, loving, respectful and giving. I love every part of being a mom. I love the story times, the adventure, the smiles, the lessons, and the big neck hugs that my children can now give me.

Mom wisdom

Take care of yourself. As mothers we tend to forget that we matter. If you need to talk to someone or go to the doctor for answers, understand that that doesn't make you less of a woman, or a mom. It doesn't show your weakness — it shows your strength and determination and gives a good example to your children that you make yourself a priority — you’re important.

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