Undergoing thyroid cancer surgery: Molly’s story
In November 2019, Molly Pearce noticed a lump on the left side of her throat.
Then 13, Molly ended up at CHOC after a friend of her mother, Jacqueline, recommended going there and after Jacqueline did a lot of research.
Pediatric otolaryngologist Dr. Kevin Huoh’s name kept coming up and they met in January 2020.
“From the second we met,” Jacqueline says, “we knew we were going to love him. He’s got a great bedside manner. He’s reassuring. He’s thorough. He answered all our questions. He spent a lot of time with us, which isn’t always the case with busy surgeons. We definitely got the impression that he cared a lot.”
Kids at greater risk of cancer
The thyroid is a gland that makes and stores hormones that help regulate the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and the rate at which food is converted into energy.
The prevalence of thyroid masses in children is much lower compared with adults. But such masses in children tend to carry a greater risk of harboring malignancy compared with their adult counterparts. And thyroid surgery in the pediatric population is associated with a higher rate of complications than adult thyroid surgery.
Thyroid cancer is on the rise around the world, including in adolescents, says Dr. Huoh, who has a special interest in thyroid surgery, especially thyroid cancer surgeries.
So, after arriving at CHOC in September 2013, Dr. Huoh began working with endocrinologists at CHOC to spearhead a multi-disciplinary thyroid surgery program that steadily has grown since then. Today, Dr. Houh works very closely with Dr. Himala Kashmiri, a pediatric endocrinologist, in CHOC’s thyroid cancer program.
“When I first started here in 2015, as director of the thyroid cancer clinic program here at CHOC, our typical workflow was to find ENT surgeons for our patients in the community of Orange County or even Los Angeles,” Dr. Kashmiri says. “However, rather quickly as a pediatric endocrinologist who puts the patient first, I gained accelerated confidence with Dr. Huoh’s expertise, interpersonal skills, and poise to handle our simple-to-complex neck surgeries.
“This has been a game-changing experience for us to have a surgeon who we trust and value to take care of patients with excellent outcomes whom we recommend fully without any hesitation. I would just like to say thanks to Dr. Huoh for bringing his passion and commitment to CHOC and the children we serve.”
Scary experience, good outcome
In February 2020, Dr. Huoh removed one half of Molly’s thyroid.
The tumor was encapsulated, but pathology reports after surgery turned up concerning cancerous cells in the mass. Dr. Huoh went ahead with a second surgery, removing the second half of Molly’s thyroid in April 2020.
“It was a very scary time, especially during the pandemic,” Jacqueline recalls, “but CHOC offered us a broad range of resources should we want to reach out and get some support. COVID-19 added an extra layer of fear. I have to say we felt comfortable in terms of the level of cleanliness. Molly had to do COVID tests. I really feel it was a challenging time kicked up to a much more challenging time, and we still felt comfortable and safe and well cared for.”
Jacqueline praises Dr. Huoh’s skill as a surgeon.
“You wouldn’t even know she was worse for the wear,” Jacqueline says. “Everything about the care we got at CHOC, from pre-registration to when we got to the hospital, to the post-op follow-ups, was exceptional.”
With regular blood work and ultrasounds, Molly continues to be under the continuous care and careful watch of Dr. Kashmiri.
“He has a great way of communicating and empathizing with his patients in a comfortable setting,” Jacqueline says. “We know we are in good hands. He has truly been a blessing to us on our journey.”
Molly now is 15. She will need to be on a thyroid supplement the rest of her life, but says she feels great.
“I feel good but sometimes feel a phantom thing,” she says. “I feel like my thyroid is still there but it’s not. Overall, I feel amazing.”
Molly, a freshman at Dana Hills High School who loves beach volleyball and yoga and is a member of the National Charity League, says she appreciates the personal touches CHOC provided went she went in for her surgeries.
In a recently published research paper, Dr. Huoh and Dr. Kashmiri have shown that the growing program at CHOC enjoys favorable outcomes comparable with those found at the nation’s largest-volume pediatric thyroid surgery centers.
“Other research papers and guidelines say in order to have the best outcomes for thyroid surgery, you need to do 30 surgeries per year,” Dr. Huoh says. “Fortunately, pediatric thyroid surgery is fairly uncommon. This makes it difficult for many newer thyroid surgery programs to achieve these numbers. Our study shows outcomes similar to those at higher volume centers.”
In the paper, published in early February 2021 in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, Drs. Huoh and Kashmiri studied 31 patients who underwent thyroid surgery at CHOC between 2014 and 2020. The numbers have grown from two to three a year to nearly nine, and are expected to continue to increase, Dr. Huoh says.
Key finding in the research paper: The 31 CHOC thyroid surgery patients, who ranged in age from 8 months to 20 years, experienced a rate of complications comparable to larger-volume pediatric thyroid surgical programs.
“Recent publications have advocated that patients in need of thyroid surgery should be referred to high-volume surgical centers, asserting that high-volume centers experience fewer complications,” the paper states. “In contrast to recent publications, our study demonstrates that low-volume and intermediate-volume thyroid surgery centers can achieve comparable results.”
A key reason why, according to the paper, is having a multidisciplinary team of pediatric otolaryngologists and endocrinologists, such as the team at CHOC.
Ties to nuclear medicine program
Dr. Huoh notes that some patients need radioactive iodine treatment after thyroid cancer surgery. Such treatment requires a nuclear medicine program. It’s fortuitous, he says, that construction is under way on space that will house CHOC’s first nuclear medicine program.
The new space, which totals some 4,000 square feet, is scheduled to open in fall 2021 in the Bill Holmes Tower at CHOC’s main hospital campus.
Its opening will be especially important for patients undergoing thyroid surgery who now must go to other hospitals for radioactive iodine treatment, says Dr. Hollie Lai, a radiologist who will be in charge of CHOC’s nuclear medicine program.
“This will be a huge benefit to patients,” Dr. Lai says. “Many of our thyroid cancer patients now have to go to adult facilities.”
Such treatment involves giving patients medicine, usually orally, that has radiation in it that zaps away remnants of cancerous tissue following surgery. Thyroid surgery patients will be one part of CHOC’s nuclear medicine program, which will provide full-service therapies in addition to research.
She praises Dr. Huoh’s skills.
“He’s a great surgeon who relates very well to his patients,” Dr. Lai says.
Dr. Huoh has big hopes for CHOC’s thyroid surgery program.
“Our goal is to be one of those centers doing 30 or more surgeries a year,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to show great outcomes on our way to becoming one of the high-volume pediatric surgery thyroid programs.”
For more on CHOC’s otolaryngology program