Local Man takes crusade to national front

The Eagle-Tribune
Tuesday, September 8, 1998

Local Man takes crusade to national frontSurvivor organizes first American conference on thyroid cancer

by Marjory Sherman
Eagle-Tribune Writer

Ric Blake calls himself a cancer terrorist even though his infectious giggle and sweet demeanor are a far cry from scary.

His war is not waged with suicide bombings but with words.

Due largely to his efforts, the first American conference for thyroid cancer survivors, Thyca ’98, runs Sept. 18 to 20 at the Burlington Marriott,
drawing illustrious doctors and scores of patients from around the country.

For Mr. Blake, 54, of Londonderry, N.H., and fellow survivor Evelyn M. Gonzalez, 27, of Lawrence, all their hard work will be worthwhile if one more
thyroid cancer patient gets a diagnosis early enough to save his or her life.

Mr. Blake is a reluctant promoter with a distaste for the glare of the spotlight he knows is a necessary evil.

“I just thing of that one person in some isolated part of the country who gets a physician who may not be the best, who may not get the most up-to-date treatment, then they can die. It’s real simple,” he said.

Thyroid cancer strikes 12,000 to 15,000 people each year in America, far fewer than lung or breast or prostate cancer. Yet 1,000 of them will die,
some of whom could have been saved with earlier diagnosis.

“Thyroid cancer is a highly treatable disease in its early stages, but you have to treat it very aggressively, with diagnostic scans and constant
blood work,” said Mr. Blake.

The conference offers three days of workshops and round table discussions on everything from talking to your doctors, to understanding lab tests
to radioiodine therapy. Thyca is a term Mr. Blake coined that combines the words “thyroid” and “cancer”.

Mr. Blake became a crusader for thyroid cancer support after doctors removed an orange-sized tumor from his neck in 1995.

In the weeks and months that followed his diagnosis of follicular thyroid cancer, Mr. Blake suffered feelings of isolation and fear as he cast about in
search of information about his illness.

He was sent home from the hospital after a grueling 6-hour surgery without a lick of information from his surgeon, primary care physician, or
endocrinologist. His wife, Diane, was his primary support, but she, too, was worried.

Complications followed when his vocal chords became paralyzed and he had to have an emergency tracheotomy after a week of being in severe
respiratory distress.

He was terrified, not knowing whether he could return to work as public information officer at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, and
wondering how to deal with his illness. His voice returned eventually, as did his capacity to work.

Help came finally in the form of a thyroid cancer chat room on America On Line that meets Monday nights from 8 to 9.

When Mrs. Gonzalez learned she had thyroid cancer in October 1996, after months of misdiagnosis, Mr. Blake showed up almost immediately.

He pulled down the neck of his sweater, revealing his own scar from thyroid cancer surgery — a slash across the neck that thyroid surgery patients
recognize instantly.

“Mine was the size of an orange. You are going to live. You are not going to die,” he told her, practically willing her into a better physical mode.

Together, Mr. Blake and Mrs. Gonzalez opened the first thyroid cancer support group in the nation. It meets the second Saturday of each month
at 10 a.m. at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center and has about 20 members.

Mrs. Gonzalez has gone through many ups and downs since her diagnosis, but her close relationship as single mother to her two daughters, Amanda, 8, and Emily, 3, has given her courage to forge ahead.

Without a thyroid to regular hormones, her body went through some profound changes. Her breasts produced milk even though she was not
nursing a baby. She hemorrhaged shortly after arriving home from the hospital. She experienced bone pain and her blood pressure dropped so
low she had to return to the hospital.

For Mr. Blake, three years of living with a relatively rare form of thyroid cancer has presented its own challenges.

He has undergone radioactive iodine therapy four times to destroy residual cancer cells hiding in the body.

He volunteered to become a human “guinea pig” this month for the prestigious National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. To prepare for
bone scans and iodine treatment, Mr. Blake stopped taking his thyroid medication. The withdrawal sent him into a state of hypothyroidism, with
bouts of chills, forgetfulness, arthritis and achiness.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity or whining about feeling lousy, Mr. Blake headed off to Washington with the mission of spreading the word about
the upcoming thyroid cancer conference.

He wore a T-shirt specially printed with his own version of the “guinea pig” moniker — “New Hampshire Lab Rat” — and his ever-present grin.

“I’m really sick right now. I could go down there and be sick and whine and feel miserable. Or I could go down there with my T-shirt and Mickey
Mouse ears and have fun,” he said.

He choose to grin and make his pitch.

For more information about the conference, which costs $25 per person, he can be contacted at Rblake2675@aol.com.

This report was prepared by health reporter Marjory Sherman. If you have questions, comments or material to add on this subject, please feel free to contact her by phone at (978) 685-1000, by mail at Box 100, Lawrence, MA 01842 or by e-mail at msherman@eagletribune.com.