Riley Patterson Hart graduated from Maine College of Art last summer. Around Thanksgiving she found a lump in her neck. Upon the encouragement of a friend, Hart had it checked out and found that the lump as a mass that had enclosed her thyroid gland entirely. She was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Uninsured and two surgeries later and many more hospital visits later, Hart’s medical debt is twice that of her school debt, and she is learning to live without her thyroid.
Now Hart has launched a fundraiser that has two goals. First, she is trying to raise money that will go toward a hike of Mount Kilimanjaro as a means of highlighting the issues those who are forced to go without a thyroid ultimately go through. The second is to raise money for the Maine Cancer Foundation, a foundation she has found to be exceedingly helpful throughout the past year. I talked with her about her indiegogo campaign, her interest in spreading awareness, why the hike is part of her goal, and the issues that confront those diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Can you talk a bit about your indiegogo campaign? What are you raising money for?
Shortly before I was diagnosed with cancer, I whimsically booked a non-refundable trip to Tanzania and Kenya to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Now that I’ve been going through cancer treatment, I want to use this trip as a vehicle to raise awareness about this form of cancer. The campaign is intended to raise money for the impending trip and for Maine Cancer Foundation, a cancer foundation here in Maine.
How will the trip ultimately help to raise awareness?
I hope to use the trio to spread awareness by linking it to social networking sites that are dedicated to updates on my progress. I want to provide the public with a reflective eye on what it has been like and what it will be like recovering from a cancer like this. I want to engender more of an understanding. I have found in the past few months that I have had to explain to many people what the thyroid does, and why its such a big deal to not have one, or to have one that doesn’t work properly.
Through sites like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Indiegogo, and others, I hope to gain a following, starting with friends and family who are simply interested in my personal cause. Hopefully this will disseminate to a larger community of people who could possibly also be linked to those who have had this cancer.
After I was diagnosed with this cancer, I became involved in a few online forums for those contending with thyroid cancer. One of the major side effects of going through a thyroidectomy, which is the surgery most commonly used when diagnosed with any type of thyroid cancer, is depression. I have been active on support groups for a few months now, and I notice this very common vein of other survivors getting really down on themselves, thinking they can’t get over this, or that they’ll never feel okay again. I would love to use this trip as a vehicle for other thyroid cancer survivors to gain inspiration and hope in their own battle against this cancer. I am hoping attention to the cause will come from a combination of those I have touched base with online who have this cancer, and those that I know personally that will help me spread the word.
What do you ultimately hope to get out of the trip? How do you envision it will be helpful to what you are going through?
Ultimately I want to prove to myself and to others that living without a thyroid due to cancer isn’t a cull order on your happiness. I made the conscious decision to not cancel this trip due to what I am going through because now I can use it as something to work towards. I have a reason to actively not wallow in self-pity and depression. Depression is a pretty shitty side-effect, but it is what it is until they nail the right hormone dosage. So I am making sure that I am eating right and staying active to prepare for this hike. Without this trip, I think it would have been much harder for me to find the incentive to get back on track after my surgeries. There is only so much that a fake happy face can do for you.
Knowing the nature of the Internet, and that people live to tear others down in the comments section, what words do you have for those who will inevitably throw a fit about how you should be paying attention to paying down your medical debts before hiking a mountain in Africa?
Paying a bill doesn’t improve my soul’s credit score. But actually though, like, yeah paying off that medical debt will feel good, but climbing that mountain will feel way better.
[Laughs] That’s great. Why do you think it important to raise awareness about the particular cancer you have?
I think more awareness about it, especially coming from someone as painfully upbeat as I am at the moment would help set a more positive stage for others going into this predicament in the future. Going into this, I had bloggers and others in the support group saying things like “I had this surgery over two years ago, and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same ever again” and I want to change that outlook of those people.
Do you think dealing with this would have been a bit easier to deal with had you known more about cancer on the whole before you were diagnosed?
Yes and no. This cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States and I think its now something like #3 most diagnosed. Due to the nature of the side effects of this cancer, there aren’t nearly enough success stories and people discussing the positive things that could come out of a diagnosis such as this. The side effect that I’m referencing is the depression that goes along with being hypothyroid after the surgery. So many people going through this cancer online in the support groups and forums are really quite negative in response to what they are going through. I’ve really had to dig for a few souls that are my age that have an outlook as bright as my own.