At the start of 1998, I was a large but healthy postgraduate student, aged 24 – I was a pear-shaped 90kg at a height of 169cm, (a BMI of 31.5) I didn’t own a car and cycled everywhere, and had no health issues. Over the next few months, I started to feel depressed and lethargic, and started to gain weight, despite eating less because I was too tired to eat. I exercised less, as I was too tired to cycle, and was gaining huge amounts of weight.
I went to the University Health Clinic again and again, telling them I was exhausted and depressed, and after six months of three doctors telling me I was just overweight (and one telling me that if I didn’t lose weight I would die), the doctor I saw most often put me on antidepressants and sent me to the counselling centre. By the end of 1998 I was so exhausted that I would spend days at time in bed, unable to move, and was still gaining large amounts of weight. At this stage, I had gained 35kg – over a third of my body weight again – in less than a year. According to the doctors, this was because I ate too much and didn’t exercise.
They referred me to a dietician, but I couldn’t take her advice because I was too tired to shop or cook. By now, I had to put my government postgraduate scholarship on hold and go onto sickness benefits, as I could no longer read more than a few pages at a time without sleeping – previously I had been reading between 2 and 4 books a day. As 1999 went on, I found an antidepressant that helped me not have bouts of suicidal thoughts, though I was still exhausted and hopeless. I had now developed severe dizziness on top of the weight gain and lethargy and was spending most days in bed.
I would emphasise that at no time did I disagree with the doctor’s assessment that the weight gain was my own fault – I thought that I was being lazy and obviously eating too much.
My parents and friends (with the exception of my girlfriend) were also concerned about my weight and thought that I should exercise more. With the dizziness and extreme fatigue, this was impossible, and by early September 1999 I weighed 135kg (a BMI of 47.5). The doctor thought I might have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but at this point, she became concerned with my dizziness and sent me to an audiologist to have my middle and inner ears checked. The audiologist checked my hearing and performed a few basic tests, then was so concerned about my dizziness that he sent me for a test to see if I had a brain tumour. This test was negative, and the audiologist performed more balance tests – in the process, he put his hand under my ear, his thumb touching my throat, and noticed that I had a swelling on my thyroid.
The audiologist – the only health professional not focused on my weight – was the only one to notice that I had a 4cm palpable growth on my thyroid.
Back to the doctor for a thyroid hormone test – the results came back as abnormally low. Low thyroid hormone produces fatigue and weight gain. She then sent me to have an ultrasound, which revealed the growth, and I was referred to a thyroid specialist. This specialist did not focus on my weight, but was very professional and helpful – I had further tests, including a nuclear medicine scan and several biopsies, all of which were inconclusive. On December 30th, 1999, now weighing 145kg, the left half of my thyroid was removed. It turned out to be a malignancy, which had grown a full centimetre in the 12 weeks since the first scan. Fortunately, further scans and biopsies showed that the malignancy had not spread beyond the left half of my thyroid, so I did not have to have radiation therapy.
The specialist told me that if my treatment had been delayed another five weeks, the tumour would have expanded past the thyroid, and from there it is a lot more difficult to treat.
It’s taken me a long time to recover from the anger and suspicion of this treatment, and I moved to a new town with my girlfriend and saw new doctors who had no problems with my weight – they were focused on my health, instead, which was a pleasant surprise. I still have to have blood tests, thyroid palpation, X-rays and ultrasounds at regular intervals to make sure that the cancer hasn’t returned, and it’s taken years to get my thyroid medication right, but I am again in good health. I’m still on anti-depressants, though, and now have no contact with the friends that were pleased to find out that I wasn’t just fat, I had a “real disease”, and am still angry at my parents for thinking that my weight gain was a fault of mine, rather than supporting and helping me when I was seriously ill.