'I never knew that thyroid cancer existed until, at 37, it began to steal my dream of being at home with my three little girls'
As Thyroid Cancer Awareness month continues, Lisburn mum Karen Gribbon tells Stephanie Bell why she started a blog about her fight with the disease.
Karen Gribbon had just made the momentous decision to give up her high flying career in marketing to spend quality time at home with her three young girls when her world was rocked with a cancer diagnosis.
Two years on and the Lisburn mum has become the author of a sensational new blog – Raising Mighty Girls – which has captured the hearts of a worldwide online community.
Karen's determination not to let her fear of cancer overshadow the joy of being with her girls shines through in her blog which she also hopes will help raise awareness of thyroid cancer.
The blog was launched in March and became an instant hit. Within a few short months it has been nominated in the Blog Awards Ireland, led Karen into talks with a US company to become a resident blogger for them and seen her appointed as an ambassador for Booktrust NI.
She and husband Conor (41), who is self-employed, have three girls, Rachel (10), Molly (6) and Lara (3).
Karen (40) describes the last two years surviving cancer and raising her girls as "crazy, scary and wonderful all at the same time".
She says: "The diagnosis was such a shock and before I even got the chance to say my final goodbyes in the workplace, the big C took a hold of my life.
"I hated it for all the obvious reasons, but I hated it even more because it was stealing my dream of being at home with my girls.
"My experiences led me to write the blog. Writing was something I really missed from work and through my ramblings I hope to share my ultimate passion for raising my girls who I hope will be happy, courageous, resilient and kind – My Mighty Girls.
"Cancer is now a part of my life but I'm not afraid of it. I'd love to think that something I write may help someone else diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
"Throughout my treatment, it became clear to me that thyroid cancer is a lesser known and therefore lesser understood cancer.
"In fact, some call it the 'good cancer'. This used to make me so furious and frustrated that very few people understand the implications on survivors post-thyroid cancer."
September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, when people across the country are being urged to 'Check Your Neck' for potential cancerous lumps.
Karen had never heard of thyroid cancer when she was diagnosed in March 2012 and believes strongly that more awareness needs to be created.
"I never even knew it existed," she says. "I had no clue, I had never heard of it and even when I tried to find out about it, all I could see was awareness and fundraising of all the other types of cancer.
"I was really shocked at the lack of awareness and information and that's one of the reasons for starting the blog. I really hope people will pay attention to the Check Your Neck campaign and if they find a lump, my advice is to get it checked."
Karen first found a tiny lump in her neck in 2010 but because it wasn't hurting or annoying her she ignored it. When it was still there a few months later she went to her GP who referred her to hospital for tests.
A number of tests were carried out including a biopsy which showed the lump as benign. It wasn't until she was pregnant with her youngest child Lara, however, that the lump started to grow.
In February 2012, even though the lump was still showing as benign, doctors felt it had grown so large that it needed to be removed. During surgery it was discovered that the growth had wrapped itself round the right side of her thyroid gland, which also had to be removed.
"I didn't even know what the thyroid was or what function it had," she says. "I soon discovered it is one of the most important things in the body and controls hormones, metabolism, fatigue and weight, and so it impacts on your mental as well as your physical health.
"I was told mine was dead and not doing any good so it would be better to remove it."
It was after tests had been carried out on the growth – which roughly equated in size to an orange – that Karen was given the devastating news she had cancer.
"I was due to leave work at the end of March and I got the news just before it," she says.
"At no point at all did anybody mention cancer and so it was a complete blow. You could have knocked me down with a feather. It was like living in a dream, it wasn't real, especially as I felt totally fine.
"I immediately just thought of my family and how could this happen to me at 37 with three young girls. And what does it mean for them? The cancer cells were inside the growth, which is why they had not been picked up by previous biopsies."
As a precaution, Karen had more surgery in April to have the remainder of her thyroid removed and then spent three days receiving radiotherapy in an isolation ward in Belfast City Hospital.
She has to attend hospital every three months for scans and takes daily medication which she will be on for the rest of her life.
"It is traumatic and you can't move on entirely as every morning when I take my tablet it reminds me of it," she says.
"I do believe that is has allowed me to reassess my priorities and even though I had already made the decision to be at home with the girls, it has reaffirmed that it was absolutely the right thing to do.
"I have three young daughters and a husband I love very much and I have to keep going and keep moving forward for them."
Her blog focuses mainly on her experience as a mum raising her girls.
She shares ideas and links to activities she and the girls do together. Through it she has been delighted to have met some fellow bloggers and people who have been touched by cancer.
Typically she has made her girls a big part of it and as all three are avid readers they have become regular contributors to the blog as book reviewers.
"One of the greatest passions in our home is reading," says Karen. "I remember my grandparents buying me books for every birthday and Christmas growing up.
"Thankfully, the girls have a love for books without needing any convincing from my husband and me.
"We regularly post book reviews which the girls write themselves. They rate the books and give their honest opinions.
"We often extend the story into other play ideas which increases the fun and educational benefits.
"From this blog feature, we've received many books from publishers and local authors asking The Gribbon Girls to post reviews. The girls love doing it."
Karen is also proud to have been asked to be a Brand Ambassador for Booktrust NI, part of a UK-wide charity dedicated to encouraging a lifelong love of reading among the young.
They were impressed by Karen's approach to reading with her girls and asked if she would come on board and support them at their campaign launches in Northern Ireland.
She says: "I am regularly liaising with the fabulous team here to explore how we can grow the love of reading with today's youth and its fantastic the work the trust is doing to encourage reading in children."
Karen is also in talks to become a resident blogger for a US company who specialise in selling scientific educational toys for children, after they spotted a video her daughter had posted online of an activity they had completed at home on the metamorphosis of butterflies.
"They had seen the video on my blog illustrating our six week home science project. We had sent off for it and you get a caterpillar and look after it and after six weeks you see it turn into a butterfly.
"They were so impressed and have been in close contact ever since.
"It's opened up a whole new world to us and I really enjoy it and to be nominated for an award is just fabulous. I just hope people keep on enjoying it."
More than seven diagnosed daily
- Thyroid cancer is the 20th most common cancer in men and the 18th in women
- The most up to date statistics show that in 2011 around 2,700 people were diagnosed with thyroid cancer – that's more than seven every day
- Thyroid cancer is more common in women than men – around two-and-a-half times as many women are diagnosed as men
- Almost half of all cases of thyroid cancer in the UK are diagnosed in people aged under 50, with the under-50s accounting for a higher proportion of female cases (52%) than male cases (40%)
- Thyroid cancer incidence rates have doubled in males and more than doubled in females since the 1990s
- Survival rates for thyroid cancer are increasing. In the 1970s half of people diagnosed survived the disease for at least five years. Now around three-quarters survive
- The British Thyroid Foundation is a charity dedicated to supporting people with thyroid disorders and helping their families. For details on their work, visit www.btf-thyroid.org