Londonderry resident organizes conference for thyroid cancer survivors

Friday, August 8, 1998

Londonderry resident organizes conference for thyroid cancer survivors

by Suzanne Laurent
Derry News Staff

Wearing thick red wool socks and a vest over his shirt, Ric Blake sits on the deck of his Londonderry home. It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon. A perfect day — a dry, windless 80 degrees. Blake, however, is cold. Diagnosed three years ago at the age of 50, with thyroid cancer, Blake has stopped taking his medication, Synthroid, two weeks ago in preparation for a trip to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland to take part in a research protocol for thyroid cancer. While there at the end of August, he will have three sets of bone scans and a radioactive therapy treatment.

Each time a thyroid patient has scans done, the patient has to be off medication for six weeks. Being hypothyroid,without the medication, Blake’s
body temperature drops from his average of 98.4 degrees to 96 or 97 degrees. Fatigue sets in and concentration is difficult.

Over the past three years, Blake went from denial (hiding the disease from those close to him), to anger, to as he calls it becoming a “cancer
terrorist.” The result is a conference scheduled for September 18-20, called Thyca ’98. Thyca is a term coined by Blake for thyroid cancer. “Thyca ’98 is a nuts ‘n bolts conference where survivors will have a chance to talk face-to-face with other survivors, most for the first time since their diagnosis,” said Blake.

Blake went on to say that unlike breast and prostate cancer, thyroid cancer does not affect many thousands. “Only 12,000 to 15,000 are diagnosed with thyroid cancer each year,” he continued. “We are so few, that unless physicians specialize in thyroid disease or surgery, they may go through their entire career treating only a handful of ‘thyca’ patients.”

Thyroid cancer treatment requires taking daily medication and for the rest of the patient’s life undergoing periodic diagnostic procedures and sometimes radiation. “Learning to live with the disease is much more difficult if you never have the chance to meet others with ‘thyca’,” said Blake.

Blake had surgery in October, 1995. What was supposed to be a two hour operation became six hours. His vocal chords were paralyzed and he had to have an emergency tracheotomy after a week of being in severe respiratory distress. Blake soon realized that there was no written material available for a patient going home after a tracheotomy. Blake, who is the director for the Office of Public Information at the Greater Lawrence Health Center, was terrified. Much of his job involved public speaking.

Anger at lack of medical information about his disease increased when he tried to find support and to cope with living with this particular form of
cancer. “The worst part was that he wouldn’t tell anyone for almost a year,” said Diane, Blake’s wife of 31 years. “Diane was just as terrified as I was,” said Ric. Blake’s vocal chords did heal and he is very outspoken now about his disease.

Help came over the Internet. Blake located a weekly thyroid cancer chat room organized by Karen Ferguson, a resident of Charlotte, North
Carolina, also diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The chat room is open to ‘thyca’ survivors from 8 to 9 pm on American Online every Monday night.

Blake found the chat room particularly helpful to guide someone through what he calls “your worst nightmare.” When Blake needed to have his
first radiation treatment, he describes a sense that could be right out of a Robin Cook novel. “For three days, I was in isolation after swallowing a
pill that made me radioactive. I had to eat and sleep with piled up paper plates and bedding. The whole room was encased in white paper and
plastic. No one wanted to come in the room.”

Thyroid patients must starve their bodies for iodine by going off the Synthroid for six weeks, and eating a special iodine-free diet for two weeks before a scheduled bone scan. During the scan, iodine is used to target cancerous cells. If cells are found the patient must go through the radiation treatment.

Blake keeps a sense of humor about life. His perennial garden has whimsical objects here and there to make him smile. “Most people have this
thing about angels,” he said. “Look around — gargoyles, everywhere.” On a more serious note, he said, “for many years before I was diagnosed with cancer, I lived each day as a gift, a lesson even more important to remember after a life-threatening illness. In my case, I took up perennial gardening. You have to have faith you’ll be around to enjoy the beauty of your work when you plan a perennial that won’t mature for another few

Having the support group on the Internet helps, but Blake wanted to make the ordeal of surviving thyroid cancer more personal — to have survivors
meet face to face. Open to survivors and their families, the conference will have round-table discussions co-facilitated by survivors and health care
personnel. Topics will include “RAI” therapy, tests and treatments, iodine-free diet and managing the hypothyroid roller coaster. The conference
will beheld at the Boston Mariott in Burlington, Mass. The cost of the conference is $10 per person if registered before August 15, after which it
will be $25. One can register by contacting Jan Scheuerman, Thyca ’98 registrar, 413 SW 46th Terrace, Cape Coral, FL 33914-6466 or registering
through the Thyca ’98 web page at Ric Blake may be reached at 603-434-4932 evenings and weekends or by e-mail: