October 26, 2017

Member's Facebook video leads to cancer diagnosis, treatment

Through a chance encounter with a stranger and the expertise of her cancer team, Shelly Gonzalez is now a survivor with an inspired passion for living.

As a professional health and wellness coach, Shelly Gonzales’ clients, friends, family and even strangers look to her Facebook page for inspiration to help them eat right and stay active. One post dramatically changed her life — and potentially others.

In January, while going through a divorce, Shelly created a video about how to handle life’s twists and turns. One viewer, whom Shelly had not met, messaged her and said, “I hope this doesn’t sound too forward. I am a nurse and I was watching your video and noticed a huge bulge in your neck. I wonder if you have had your thyroid checked.”

Shelly was angry, disbelieving and scared. After all, she was healthy.

After examination by her primary care physician and specialists, and an ultrasound test, the dreaded “C” word — cancer — entered her vocabulary for the first time. Soon after, her thyroid was surgically removed at Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Oregon.

A stranger and a guardian angel

Shelly considers the stranger her guardian angel and thanks her for being bold enough to speak out. She’s also grateful for her Kaiser Permanente care team, which provided all the expertise, skill and compassion to achieve a good outcome.

“Everyone was wonderful,” she says. “The cancer specialists recognized the urgency in my case and did everything possible to get me into surgery as soon as possible. Fortunately, I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation.”

Shelly also says that during conversations with her providers, “They focused on me, not on the clock, nor on their next patient. They made sure all my questions were answered.”

A team behind every treatment

Patients such as Shelly who have thyroid cancer receive care from Sunshine Dwojak, MD, otolaryngologist, a member of Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s Head and Neck Surgery department. Dr. Dwojak also leads a regional Head and Neck Cancer Task Force, which ensures best practices for patient care.

Patients with head and neck cancer receive care from a team consisting of medical, radiation, and surgical oncologists, anesthesiologists, speech therapists, registered nurses, nurse navigators, physician assistants, dentists, physical therapists and other professionals.

This team cares for patients who have diseases and conditions of the ear, nose and throat. One cancer in particular, oropharyngeal cancer, caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), is on the rise across the US. Despite the increase, the prognosis in general remains very good, according to Dr. Dwojak. “Patients benefit from our very strong system of care. For example, we have a new best-practices staging system that allows patients to get the treatments they need, without harmful overtreatment.”

Patients also benefit from robotic surgery to remove cancerous tissue. This advanced surgical technique means shorter hospitalization, less pain and discomfort, and faster recovery.

Focus on recovery and learning

“We know that a cancer diagnosis can cause great fear and anxiety for patients and family members,” says Dr. Dwojak. “We want patients to know that Kaiser Permanente is equipped to treat complex, advanced cancers with leading technology and techniques delivered by highly trained clinicians.”

As for Shelly, the woman whose thyroid cancer was diagnosed by a stranger, she’s optimistic that her suffering is behind her. She leads a joyful life and uses her Facebook platform to inspire others to achieve health and wellness, and overcome life’s challenges.

“I’m a cancer survivor and I have a lot to live for,” she says.