With a week-old pink surgical wound etched a few inches from her neck, medical student Sally Rohan said somehow, she didn’t have a scar yet.
“This is my first time,” Rohan, a second-year medical student at New Jersey-based Rowan-Virtua College of Osteopathic Medicine, told CNN on Thursday. “I don’t know how I got through life so unscathed that I never had a scar until I got this huge scar on my neck when I was 27.”
Rohan, originally from Ukiah, California, said she underwent surgery on December 6 to remove her entire thyroid gland after an ultrasound alerted her to what was later diagnosed as thyroid cancer.
As a first-year medical student in November 2022, when she was 25 years old, Rohan made this accidental discovery while serving as a class patient. She and her colleagues were learning how to use ultrasound to examine the thyroid, according to Rohan.
“We train by sitting on beds and doing it with each other in small groups, so I lay on the bed and my friend held up the probe, and we were looking at my thyroid,” Rohan said.
Rohan, who was able to see the screen for herself, recalled seeing that her thyroid looked “full of bumps.”
“‘What’s going on here?’ The texture doesn’t look like it did in the videos we watched before this class,” Rohan remembers him saying.
One coach identified what Rohan saw as a dogma and recommended a checkup from her primary care physician.
“Since we are in medical school, I sent it to student health just to see what they thought,” Rohan said.
She was again advised to see her doctor, but at that time, she was less than three weeks away from turning 26, when she would be excluded from her parents’ health insurance in California.
“I had a plan on how to get health insurance in New Jersey, but I didn’t realize how long it would take,” Rohan said.
Her doctor in California said they would order blood tests, but recommended waiting until she was insured again to receive diagnostic imaging and a more comprehensive look at her thyroid.
At the same time, the priority was school. Rohan said she didn’t feel too worried after being told her thyroid levels were normal and that thyroid cancer was “not that bad.”
The five-year relative survival rate for papillary thyroid cancer, which Rohan was later diagnosed with, is more than 99%, according to the American Cancer Society. She added that her family has no history of thyroid cancer.
“I don’t think (my doctor) intended (for me) to wait a whole year, which is what I ended up doing,” she said.
Rohan said she finally got an ultrasound after getting health insurance and a new primary care doctor two months ago.
She said she was playing pickleball with friends when she received a new message notification in her medical records app.
Courtesy Sally Rohan
In the photo on the left, Sally Rohan watches her thyroid ultrasound. The photo on the right shows her surgical scar after her thyroid was removed.
“The radiologist looked at my ultrasound and said, ‘She has multiple nodules on her thyroid that appear to be cancer, and the cancer appears to have spread bilaterally to the cervical lymph nodes,’” Rohan recounted.
The letter scared her.
“Even at that moment, I was like, ‘Well, it’s thyroid cancer, and people don’t usually die from it,'” Rohan said. “But I didn’t really think, ‘What if I move?’ Like, what if it spreads somewhere else?
After quickly scheduling a biopsy with the help of a doctor from the medical school, Rohan said, her gratitude that she was closer to getting some answers outweighed her fear of what was to come.
After a biopsy that confirmed possible cancer, she said she scheduled surgery with a specialist with experience in thyroid and adrenal surgeries.
“It was great and worked with my school schedule so I could take some time off, but also not have to fall behind if I didn’t want to,” Rohan said.
She can’t yet say she’s completely disease-free, and Rohan said she will need to continue taking thyroid hormone to replace the missing gland.
“I don’t think anyone wants to get my hopes up,” she said. “When they were doing the lateral dissection of the neck to take the cancer out of the lymph nodes, they discovered more than they thought, which was unexpected.”
Rohan said she believes her experience with cancer will shape the way she serves her patients when she becomes a doctor.
“I think it would give me more empathy,” she said. “I think it makes me a more compassionate person in general, but also as a future doctor, for sure.”