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Patient with thyroid cancer: ‘Doc Mantravadi saved my life’

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Patient with thyroid cancer: ‘Doc Mantravadi saved my life’

A northern Indiana attorney is so grateful for his care and recovery that he has written a book, “Firm Grip.” During “Medullary Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month” Bill Nelson shares his story.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

There were many places that Bill Nelson could have gone for his treatment for thyroid cancer. He chose IU Health and Dr. Avinash Mantravadi. Six years after his diagnosis, Nelson is speaking out about the care her received and is also educating others about medullary thyroid cancer.

Medullary thyroid cancer, a growth of abnormal cancer cells in the thyroid - makes up about three percent of all thyroid cancers. It can be a sporadic or hereditary development and often shows up as a bump on the front of the neck. Sometimes there are few symptoms.

For Bill Nelson, it was an unrelated symptom that resulted in his diagnosis. He was listening to music in his car and had a ringing in his ear that sounded like a vibrating speaker. He thought possibly the symptom was related to an ear surgery he had years ago.

Bill Nelson and wife

A long-time resident of northern Indiana, where he has a private law practice, Nelson could have gone to Chicago. But instead, his diagnosis brought him to IU Health. He first visited a local ENT specialist closer to home. During that visit, the physician noticed a nodule on Nelson’s thyroid. An ultrasound and biopsy followed.

“A day after I was told I had medullary thyroid cancer, the ringing in my ear was gone. We call that, ‘God,’ said Nelson, 57. “The symptoms were unrelated by both got me to an ENT. I was in the office alone when I got word that I have cancer. I immediately turned to ‘Dr. Google’ and started researching.” Part of Nelson’s research included reading the 87 pages of the American Thyroid Association’s (ATA) Guidelines for management of thyroid cancer.

By the time Nelson got to Indianapolis and met with Dr. Mantravadi, he was well on his way to understanding his condition. He came armed with questions, and was satisfied with the answers.

“If you can’t get to a center of excellence for medullary thyroid cancer, you need to get to a doctor who understands the ATA guidelines. Standard chemotherapy and radiation do not work. Surgery is the primary and first line of defense,” said Nelson.

Dr. Mantravadi completed his medical degree at Indiana University School of Medicine. He completed a residency in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center and a fellowship in advanced head and neck oncologic surgery/micro vascular reconstruction at the University of Miami Hospitals/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“The experience with IU health was fantastic. The first time I saw Dr. Mantravadi, he squeezed me in and I got immediate attention from a doctor who actually cares for me like family. He’s not just a great doctor, he’s a fantastic human being,” said Nelson. “The first time I drove to Indianapolis I drove with dread. Now I drive with gratitude because he saved my life.”

Nelson underwent an eight-hour surgery on Feb. 10, 2016. Since then, he says the results are as rare as the cancer itself. His tumor markers have shown no evidence of active cancer.

Bill Nelson after Thyroid Cancer surgery

He’s spent the years following surgery focusing on his family and opportunities that allow him to live his life to the fullest. He has been married to his wife, Jane, for 32 years. They have two sons, Erik, 27, and Adam, 25.

Knowing that his diagnosis could be hereditary, Nelson underwent genetic testing. His results were a sporadic diagnosis rather, than hereditary.

“Waiting for those test results was one of the toughest times throughout all of this. I’d rather die than pass it along to my boys,” said Nelson. Throughout his diagnosis, surgery, testing, and follow up, Nelson focused on gratitude every step of the way.

“People talk about ‘fighting cancer,’ but it’s not a fair fight. There’s little you can do other than go through it with a positive attitude. Someone told me ‘you’re so brave’ and I said ‘what choice do I have?’” said Nelson, a board member of the Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association (ThyCa). He has also been a keynote speaker at national conferences, and an active social media supporter for people with medullary thyroid cancer.

Last October, Nelson released a book, “Firm Grip: Learning to Thrive when Life Doesn’t go as Planned.” In sharing his personal story, Nelson offers hope to others. He encourages people facing life-threatening health situations to recognize their life-creating capabilities, understand the power of their thoughts, trust God, and remain aware of life that his happening around them.

“When my friend encouraged me to write a book, I resisted and then I thought, ‘how can I not write a book?’ I have hope and if I didn’t share that hope it would be selfish,” said Nelson, who recently gifted Dr. Mantravadi with a copy of the book. He posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook with a caption: “This is the guy who saved my life. Of course I gave him a copy of the book since he’s in it.”

What keeps Nelson hopeful every day? “For someone who has gone through cancer and kicked the can down the road but doesn’t know what’s next, I encourage them to find their gratitude,” said Nelson. “Gratitude is the bass note of daily attitude. When you practice it you can get better and it’s impossible to be negative.”

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