Meet Don’t Worry Be Happy shirts new fundraiser, Heather Briney, thyroid cancer survivor

Heather’s Background

Heather Briney is a native Californian relocated to San Diego to be with her husband a recently discharged disabled Marine. Heather was the family breadwinner at 23 as her husband’s disabilities, a result of his military service in Iraq, left him currently unemployable. Heather’s diagnosis of malignant thyroid cancer, surgery and treatment took her away from work long enough that she was laid off from her job. Now without a job buried in medical & hospital bills they are flat broke. Even paying for her follow up blood tests is a struggle not to mention the rent. Heather’s family while always helpful also struggles with medical issues as her grandfather battles prostate cancer in the wake of her father’s thyroid surgery earlier this year. We would like your help so Heather can heal without worry and find happiness to be and stay well. Show support and help them get back on their feet with a Don’t Worry Be Happy shirt purchase today.

Heather’s Personal Story

To be 23 and find out that I had cancer was and still is mind boggling.

In early June of 2010 I went in for my yearly physical with my gynecologist, while checking for lumps she noticed that the lymph nodes in my neck and my thyroid were swollen. I had honestly chalked it up to thyroid problems since my dad had his removed earlier in the year with benign cysts, little did I know that it was more than a problem.

I went back home to San Diego where my husband and I have resided since he was fresh out of the military after 4 years of active duty and 2 overseas deployments.  I found a family practice doctor and advised her of what my doctor had found. We ran numerous blood tests to check my red blood count, white blood count, thyroid levels and more and they all came back normal.  She had me take numerous ultrasounds as well and they couldn’t see a problem, they just said that it was swollen.  Finally the doctor scheduled a biopsy which took place the last week of July.  My parents came down from Fresno to be with me as my husband had school. They took 10 needle pricks from my thyroid, which my thyroid was not happy about to say the least. I was in pain for a few days to a week after that. That week was absolute hell, the waiting, the not knowing, the what-ifs that kept flooding my mind were taking its toll on me.

On Tuesday August 3, 2010 my life forever changed. The test results that I had been waiting on from my biopsy came back malignant. I found out that I had stage 2 thyroid cancer. It was papillary carcinoma and borderline follicular carcinoma. To be 23 and find out that I had cancer was and still is mind boggling. I was at work when the doctor called, and I instantly fell to the floor (I was pacing the floor at the time she called). My co-workers and boss were in complete shock that I had cancer. I went home and told my husband, I thought he was going to punch a hole in the wall. We got in the car and drove to the doctor’s office, where we talked with her on what it meant and she gave me the name of a great oncologist that she wanted me to see. I called the oncologist and set up a consultation, my husband and I went and met with him. He is an amazing doctor with a great sense of humor. He put me at ease, told me everything that he was going to do, he also drew diagrams of it so I knew visually what was going to occur. I was taken aback when we walked into the oncology wing of the building because the first room I saw was where all the patients getting their chemotherapy and I pretty much lost it. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to be in that room in a matter of months and losing my hair.

I spent the next several weeks waiting for a surgery date and doing as much research on the internet for my condition.

On Monday August 30, 2010 bright and early in the morning I had a full thyroidectomy to remove my thyroid and the tumor growing on it. The tumor was a whopping 4.5 inches and we joked that I had a female version of an Adam’s apple in my throat. My doctor biopsied a few of my lymph nodes and we found out that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.  My incision looked gruesome to say the least; it was puckered up and stapled. I looked like Frankenstein’s bride. They had me on a liquid diet for the first day and introduced solids the next day. It was hard to swallow at first cause my neck hurt but it got better over time. I was in the hospital for 3 days recovering; they were constantly pumping me with fluids, taking vials of blood to check my levels of the thyroid hormone replacement and my calcium levels.  The whole month of September I was at home recovering from surgery and letting my body heal before they would do my treatment, during that time I met with my endocrinologists so we could discuss my thyroid hormone replacement levels and what we need to do from now on out.

On Tuesday October 12, 2010 I underwent RAI-131 radiation treatment. I was given the highest dosage of radiation allowed before they would have put me on chemotherapy. I was confined to the bedroom at home and in isolation. It was not fun in the least bit; I was tired, sick and just bored all the way around. I was on a strict low-iodine diet to ensure that it worked the way we needed it to. I was sicker than a dog so to speak, constantly sucking on mints, drinking water and taking my anti nauseous medicine to survive. I slept for 5 of the 7 days that I was in isolation and I hardly had an appetite. My husband had to pretty much force me to eat to maintain some nutrients in my body.  Then on Tuesday October 19, 2010 I had a follow up appointment and a PET scan. The scan came back that there were no more cancer cells active in my neck area or in any of my other lymph nodes.

During this whole process I was home on medical leave, from August through December. I was the only one with a job between my husband and me because most places wouldn’t hire him with his disabilities that he sustained while being an active duty military service member.  I had a job that was amazing and I loved it, but once I was released to go back to work they let me go. They weren’t willing to work with me for the month my doctor wanted me to be part time.  My doctor wanted me to get my energy levels back up and to build up my immune system.  We stopped paying my insurance premiums because work said I could pay them when I get back to work. Now that they have let me go we have 5 months worth of premiums to pay back which total up well into the $1500 range.  Meanwhile my husband has been in school utilizing his GI Bill for the military and getting roughly $1500 a month for our bills.   We are making monthly payments to the hospital for our portion of my claim. I have received one disability paycheck from the state and one from my insurance for a whopping grand total of less than $500.   I am still working with the state to get my disability payments for the other 4 months.  We have had to resort to asking our family for money to make sure that we stayed afloat. What we had in our savings account (which happened to be quite a lot from my paychecks and his military pay that we had saved up) is completely gone. My medical bills have wiped us clean. I dread getting more bills from the hospital, doctors, and for my blood work that I get done every 4-6 weeks because we have nothing to pay them with. We are flat broke to put it nicely. We are now moving in with his parents and both of us are trying to find jobs in our home town of Fresno, because we can’t afford to be living on our own even though we are grown adults.  The amount of bills and how sick I have been have taken a huge toll on my husband and me.  When we found out that I had cancer we had been married 1 year and a little over a month.  So to be newlyweds, living six hours from family, our core group of friends and our church group was very hard. There was no one to turn to, to talk to where we were. There were many phone calls made home while bawling my eyes out because I was scared, I wanted my family, I didn’t know what was next or if there was a next for me. Thankfully God had a different plan and I am cancer free as of now, I have to maintain a low stress environment otherwise I can regress back and the cancer can come back. But to maintain a low stress environment and be completely broke is like an oxymoron to say the least. To have to ask family for a hand out is hard even though we know that they are willing to help us so my husband doesn’t feel the need to reenlist into the military.   I am feeling better and have lost 30 pounds during this ordeal; however I would not recommend this as diet plan.  We laugh now that I don’t have clothes that fit and I continue to puncture holes in belts to keep clothes up since they don’t fit.  Spending money on clothes is not an option as we need the money we have left to pay the remainder of the medical bills.

I am thankful that my parents are able to place me on their medical plan as of 1/1/11 so I will not be without medical insurance.  This is a great relief.  There have been donations from people who I worked with to help buy groceries in the beginning which was appreciative.  My mother’s co-worker used her Marriot points so my mom could be with me when I had surgery.  I am blessed and thankful for the blessings that I have been given.  As my grandfather deals with his diagnosis and treatment for metastasize prostate/bone cancer, I know that I am one of the lucky ones.

Comments are closed.