United States

Scientist Uses Passion to Help Thyroid Cancer Patients

A researcher and thyroid cancer survivor at UNT Health Science Center is creating a database to help thyroid cancer patients navigate through iodine-restrictive diets.

About 60,000 people were diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year in the United States, according to the American Thyroid Association.

The thyroid gland is an endocrine gland, located in the lower front of the neck.

Thyroid cells absorb and concentrate iodine, and many patients ingest radioactive iodine to eliminate all remaining normal thyroid tissue after surgery. However, this requires a low-iodine diet in the weeks leading up to the treatment.

"A lot of people don't understand what their options are in food, so many will starve and do fruits and vegetables and nuts, and they won't eat anything else for those two to four weeks! You hear them dropping 20-30 pounds, which isn't necessary," said Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, a researcher at UNT Health Science Center.

Cunningham, an assistant professor in the Center for Alzheimer's and Neurodegenerative Disease Research, fought her own thyroid cancer battle in 2015.

"I had a thryoidectomy, which is the removal of the thyroid," she said.

Every year, she does a course of radioactive iodine treatment, which means she returns to the low-iodine diet.

"As a scientist, I can go look at the science and I can understand the diet's components. I look at food labels and go, 'Oh, I can have this!" she said.

However, in an effort to help others, she started sharing her findings online, and what started out as a Facebook post has grown into a large online community, called the Low Iodine Diet (LID) Life Community.

"Thousands of people are emailing manufacturers, going, 'Do you use non iodized salt?' And once we get letters back, we compile it," she said.

The database includes low-iodine foods, brands, menu items at restaurants, meal plans and recipes.

It can be tailored for people all over the world.

They're options, she says, that are good for the body and soul for brave cancer fighters.

"They're already in bad shape and trying now to mentally process what foods to eat. They are depressed, there's brain fog and a whole lot of other stuff going on. It's a bad situation for many people," Cunningham said. "Normalcy. That's what makes the key to get through this easier."

Although the five-year survival rate is nearly 100 percent, there's also a 30-percent chance of a recurrence.

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