Empowering thyroid cancer patients

Aug 24 2022

Congratulations to HMRI researcher Conjoint Associate Professor Christine O’Neill whose research paper on the poor quality of life experienced by people who have had thyroid surgery for malignant cancer and benign thyroid disease, was recently published in the World Journal of Surgery.

Dr O’Neill’s world-leading research is part of a new research program at HMRI, the Surgery and Perioperative Care Research program, and involved people who had surgery between 2000 and 2017 in the Hunter New England Health District. The research is ongoing after research work in the US and Europe found that thyroid cancer patients had higher rates of anxiety than breast and colon cancer patients despite the positive prognosis, which is a 97 per cent survival rate over 10 years.

This inspired Dr O’Neill to pursue Ph.D investigating quality of life issues in patients with thyroid cancer, to ensure that patients can regain their quality of life after being treated for thyroid cancer.

Her research is designed to empower those who have thyroid cancer surgery by providing a similar level of support provided to people who have breast and colon cancer surgery. She believes thyroid patients may not be given the same level of support due to their positive prognosis.

This lack of support is a significant contributor to thyroid cancer patients experiencing anxiety, depression, fatigue and financial difficulty for up to 5 years after surgery, the research has found.

“If you’ve had breast cancer you get offered a lot of support” Dr O’Neill said.

“We really want to make sure we do the right thing by people. The more tools we give them to empower them, the better.”

The research has the aim of empowering people in practical ways, such as providing patients with proper information before surgery and facilitating access to psychosocial support services.

The diagnosis of thyroid cancer has increased substantially over the past few decades, primarily due to an increase in incidental diagnoses.

Dr O’Neill’s research has been presented at a number of conferences, including the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Asian Association of Endocrine Surgeons and had a poster presentation at the biggest thyroid conference in the world, the American Thyroid Association meeting.

Chris is a senior surgeon practicing in Newcastle. She is the current Research and Scientific Officer from ANZ Endocrine Surgeons; she chairs the Newcastle Endocrine Surgery Multidisciplinary Team and is the head of the department of general surgery at John Hunter Hospital.

She was the supervisor of General Surgical Training for the Newcastle/Gosford Network for 9 years and continues to be involved in surgical education and accreditation in NSW and nationally.

Chris is also a mother of three children and in her (very limited) spare time she tries to keep up with musical and sporting interests.


The Thyroid – Quick Facts

Q: What is the thyroid?

A: The thyroid is a small, butterfly shaped gland that sits just beneath the skin of the neck, below the Adam’s apple. It has two lobes on either side of the windwipe and this makes it look like a bowtie or a butterfly.

Q: What does the thyroid do?

A: The thyroid gland is solely responsible for manufacture and secretion of thyroid hormones, which control the metabolic rate of the body. These hormones control the rate of metabolism of almost every tissue in the body.


Q: What does it mean when your thyroid is underactive?

A: Known as hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid happens when your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones. Common signs of an underactive thyroid are tiredness, weight gain and feeling depressed, although these symptoms are common in our community, they are usually not due to thyroid dysfunction.


Q: What does it mean when a thyroid is overactive?

A: Known as hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid is caused by the thyroid releasing more thyroid hormone than is required. Hyperthyroidism can accelerate your body's metabolism, cause weight loss and a rapid or irregular heartbeat.


Q: Thyroid cancer - what are thyroid cancer symptoms?

A:  A thyroid cancer can present as a firm lump developing in the lower part of your neck. However, most neck lumps are not cancerous. Nonetheless, it is important that a neck lump is evaluated by your doctor, who may arrange ultrasound to investigate this. Some thyroid cancers can be detected by chance, on scans performed for other reasons.


Q: What is the thyroid cancer survival rate?

A:  Most thyroid cancers have a very good prognosis. The 10-year survival rate is approximately 97%. For some people, the only treatment that is required is to remove the thyroid cancer. This should be performed by an expert thyroid surgeon, who will remove part or all of the thyroid gland. In some cases, additional treatments can be required, which usually involve the administration of radioactive iodine. 


Q: Does thyroid cancer recur?

A: Most thyroid cancers do not recur after initial treatment. A small proportion can recur, which will often present as a lump in the neck, or detected on ultrasound screening. These lumps can be treated by surgical removal, often followed by radioactive iodine.