Defeating ‘ThyCa’: Thyroid cancer survivor shares his story

Published September 15, 2021, 5:14 PM

by MB Lifestyle

By Fonzy Mendoza

‘To all the amazing ThyCa warriors out there, be your own advocate—be your own hero.’

The year 2018 was a good one for me. I felt that my professional and personal life was fulfilling more than ever: I had a stable job as an events manager in one of the leading hotels in the Philippines, I was blessed with very supportive colleagues, many new opportunities were coming, I got to perform (sing) once again on the side. And, to top that all off, my body was in the best shape it had ever been!

Life was sweet, indeed, and there was nothing more in my life at that moment that I could hope for.

I didn’t know, however, that things would take a grim turn that same year.

Fonzy Mendoza, the author

‘I felt a lump’

In October 2018, I was backstage preparing for a show. While I was busy putting on some makeup, I felt a lump on the right side of my neck. I thought it was just a normal lump due to a minor cold I had. So, I just shrugged it off and let it pass, thinking it would eventually be gone in a week or two.

A couple of months later, I noticed that the lump still hadn’t gone away. Now, around this time, it got me thinking that probably something might be wrong. Even if I was not feeling any physical pain at that moment, I decided to seek medical advice—just to be safe.

In December of that year, I decided to see a specialist a week before Christmas. It was just a physical examination of my lump, but he then asked me to do some blood work, including a neck scan. Fortunately, I received the result that same day and had him check the findings. Nothing alarming from my blood exam as all levels are well within a perfect range. The scan, however, showed multiple nodules—around five to be exact—on the right part of my thyroid. He also found out that I had a swollen lymph node on my neck’s right side, the exact spot where I noticed my lump earlier.

That signaled him to run further tests on me to correctly diagnose my situation and offer me proper treatment. He then later inquired about my family’s medical history on any certain thyroid disorders. I then told him that two of my aunts from my mom’s side of the family had thyroid cancer (Papillary), and in fact, my mom was due for a neck operation for her goiter. He continued to explain the test to be performed, which was FNAB or “Fine Needle Aspiration,” to determine the nodules on my thyroid. He also mentioned in passing different disorders such as hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, and thyroid cancer. With a reassuring tone, he told me that nodules are primarily benign by nature.

Without any hesitation, I booked a test in a hospital. Still, as there were no available slots and with most doctors on leave for the holidays, I decided to book the earliest schedule—the first week of January in 2019.

During that interval, I decided to do a bit of research. Like most people, Google and WebMD became my friends for that brief moment. As you’ve guessed, I’ve read terrifying stories regarding people’s various health battles, which led me to stop, taking the minimal information I needed. Otherwise, my anxiety would start to pile up.

I decided to keep it to myself first, not until I get a confirmative result. I would just lay low on any health worry and just hope for some good news.

‘Everything became a blur’

The beginning of the year was probably the most tense I’ve ever felt in all my life. Laying in front of me was the envelope with the result. I couldn’t get myself to tear it open and face what was inside. Somehow, I could sense that my intuition was telling me something. There was no other way but to move forward. I took a deep breath, opened the letter, and in one quick glance, the words “Suspicious for Papillary Carcinoma” greeted me front and center.

After that, cliché as it may sound, everything became a blur. I felt as if the whole world shut down before my very eyes—something I only thought happened in the movies.

I couldn’t hear anything.

I felt numb.

I started to ask myself: “What is happening?” “Why me?” “Will I still live?”

The sweet life that I thought I’d tasted suddenly left me with a bitter aftertaste—I have the Big C.

Hearing the word cancer may be physically and mentally paralyzing. It is undeniable that cancer has instilled nothing but fear in us. Quite frankly, the first thing I thought of was imminent death.

After a while, I took a deep breath and sorted my game plan. Time was of the essence at this point. There was no time for drama and, like a gladiator primed for battle, I charged on with nothing but sheer courage and determination. I had to win this fight—not just for my family, but most especially for myself.

In less than a month, I met an army of doctors: ENT specialists, oncologists, pulmonologists, and endocrinologists from the top hospitals in Metro Manila. All of them said I should have my operation done soonest while it was at its early stage. Some of them even told me that thyroid cancer is a “good cancer.” The prognosis of this type is promising. I remember one doctor telling me that statistically, people are more likely to die from getting struck by lightning or a car accident than from this disease.

In February, what started as “suspicious” became a multifocal papillary thyroid cancer with a follicular variant. I didn’t waste time. I had a full thyroidectomy with partial neck dissection for the metastasis to my neck lymph nodes. Following the surgery, I had a 120 mci radioactive iodine treatment (RAI) a few months later, which I was again hospitalized for a week due to the effects of the medicine. Right now, I am celebrating my second life and hoping for a complete “remission” soonest.

The Doctors behind my operation

What is thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer is more common in women and, to some extent, it is misunderstood as female cancer. According to studies, thyroid cancers (like almost all diseases of the thyroid) occur about three times more often in women than in men.

The thyroid is a major gland of the endocrine system. It produces a thyroid hormone called thyroxine. Its function includes regulating body temperature and metabolism, maintaining skeletal maturation, and controlling protein, fat, and carbohydrates. But the challenges male patients come across are not as well thorough, understood, or even supported.

There are four types of thyroid cancer. According to

Papillary thyroid cancer. The most common form of thyroid cancer, papillary thyroid cancer arises from follicular cells, which produce and store thyroid hormones. Papillary thyroid cancer can occur at any age, but it most often affects people ages 30 to 50. Doctors sometimes refer to papillary thyroid cancer and follicular thyroid cancer together as differentiated thyroid cancer.

Follicular thyroid cancer. It also arises from the follicular cells of the thyroid. It usually affects people older than age 50. Hurthle cell cancer is a rare and potentially more aggressive type of follicular thyroid cancer. I have read in some articles that Papillary and Follicular thyroid cancer is “curable” with at least a 98 percent cure rate if caught early and treated adequately.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a rare type of thyroid cancer that begins in the follicular cells. It grows rapidly and is very difficult to treat. Anaplastic thyroid cancer typically occurs in adults age 60 and older.

Medullary thyroid cancer. This form of cancer begins in thyroid cells called C cells, which produce the hormone calcitonin. Elevated levels of calcitonin in the blood can indicate medullary thyroid cancer at a very early stage. Specific genetic syndromes increase the risk of medullary thyroid cancer, although this genetic link is uncommon.

My realizations

I want to start by encouraging everyone to remove the stigma attached to the word “cancer” and do our best to educate ourselves and others about it. There is so much you can learn from this journey the way that I did.

The biggest lesson I learned is that I realized the inner warrior within me all this time. I surprised myself, knowing that I was capable of this strength in facing any adversity arising from this situation. After all, you need to be strong first for yourself. Otherwise, you can never be truly strong for anybody else.

I will be lying to myself if I don’t admit that I feared death upon hearing that I had it. But as I accepted my fate, it was my family, mental and emotional health, possible treatments, and the quality of life that I was most concerned about post-surgery. But being diagnosed with any type of cancer would require your bravery, first of all, to help you through this journey. You should also arm yourself with faith, prayers, and acceptance for the challenges you will face head-on.

The next lesson I’ve learned to realize is the value of genuine relationships in these trying times.

We have to face the reality that having cancer will alter your relationships with people—either they stay with you and your bond grows stronger for good, or they will ultimately abandon you. This situation made me realize who my true friends are, those who never left my side during this lowest point of my life. Two of them were Raymond and most especially Marlo, my dear best friend, who has been my rock until now, encouraging and cheering me on as I faced every trial in my life—particularly this one.

Disappointments will come and definitely will be a part of it, but through this, you’ll better understand how to value people more, even the small moments in life that we have often taken for granted.

Lastly, my final realizations include how much cancer is a financial, mental, and physical burden. While I consider myself a solid and resilient person, starting this journey was never easy. I was still grappling with my new life, especially as an advocate for my own needs and treatment—things that I wasn’t ready for, nor do I think anyone would be. You just need to take a deep breath and brace yourself for what’s to come.

I became a inspirational speaker during the Thyroid Cancer Summit last July 27, 2019

My advice

To all the amazing ThyCa warriors out there, be your own advocate. Be your own hero.

During your appointments, write down questions prior. Ask your health provider questions that really concern you, no need to rush things. Forgetfulness is part of the challenge, so it’s better to have a good reference in the future. It’s good to bring a friend or family member with you to ensure someone else is also hearing the answers. It’s much better to have someone who has unbiased thoughts and be a person who can share some queries with your doctors, too.

Learn to be patient as your body will undergo a significant change. It might take time to balance the exact amount of hormone replacement your body would need.

Buckle up: It’s a bit of a bumpy ride ahead. But just relax and be at the moment.

It is normal to feel down at some point as you adjust to your new life. Don’t let your anxiety and depression get the better of you. Having someone to talk to about your emotions during this life-changing journey can help ease the pain.

We have a lot of means to find support. I have found mine at Thyroid Cancer Support Group on Facebook and met many amazing friends worldwide. Special mention to Emily Baltazar Cordera, Philip Roxby, Greg Sable, Bilna Dalisay, and the late Martha, who has been there supporting me the entire time. We are all con-neck-ted to each other, after all, as we say. In addition, you need to build your own battalion, your medical team and people close to you will be your warriors in this battle.

Lastly, never lose hope. Live life to the fullest! My faith has revived me, giving me a renewed sense of purpose. When I was at the OR during my surgery, I was so scared and deep inside me, I haven’t entirely accepted that I am now in this situation, but I needed to.

I just closed my eyes and prayed, and that was something truly unbelievable. That prayer took me to a different realm, and I felt the divine grace of the Holy Spirit, who gave me strength during that time. I felt God’s presence, and it was indeed incredible.

During these times of uncertainty, as we navigate ourselves through this situation, may we remember the absolute presence of God.

In all your troubles, God is always close that we can hear His divine whisper in our hearts. Let’s listen carefully and open ourselves to seeing the lesson in every situation that we are in.

Faith is the key to be sure in life, and love is the primary evidence of our faith.

About the author

Fonzy Mendoza, 38 years of age, is an event director, speaker, entrepreneur, and entertainer. His decade-long professional experience in hospitality management has led him to work as an events manager at the EDSA Shangri-La, Manila, one of Metro Manila’s premier luxury hotels. Also, at City of Dreams Manila, a luxury integrated resort and casino complex, as part of its pre-launching team and as an assistant manager of Attractions, Events, and Entertainment Department. Additionally, he has also worked for Venetian Macau as an entertainer and supervisor of the creative department. He has supported the Sands Cotai Central in Macau during its pre-opening.

Growing up with sheer talent and passion for the performing arts, Fonzy is a scholarship recipient from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and at the University of Santo Tomas, where he earned his Bachelors of Music degree. He also previously sang with the world-renowned and two-time Choir of the World champion, the UST Singers. He served as the Choir’s president, where he also traveled extensively and competed in the most prestigious competitions in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Born a true leader and achiever even at a young age, he has served as a Board Member and Director of the San Beda College High School Batch 2001 and received the 2011 University of Santo Tomas Benavides Scholarship Award bestowed to the university’s brightest scholars. Fonzy currently serves as the creative director and CEO of his company, Top Hat Entertainment & Events.

Get in touch with him on Facebook, Instagram (@fonzymendoza), and Youtube.