Butterfly Bandits searching for a cure

Published Aug 30, 2013 at 4:42 pm (Updated Aug 30, 2013 at 4:42 pm)

When Christine Sypien finally had surgery in 2009, it was the first time in 14 years she could breathe a sigh of relief.

That’s how long she had suffered with one symptom or another, including hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, a dramatic weight loss, a 50-pound weight gain, hair loss and a puffy face that doctors attributed to stress.

“I could feel water in my face,” she said.

Still, doctors were skeptical it was anything other than stress. After all, a biopsy performed on a nodule growing on the left side of her neck was negative.

So, the 57-year-old Scott Township woman was prescribed Prozac and encouraged to see a psychologist to help her deal with the physical changes occurring throughout her body.

It wasn’t until surgery to remove the growth in her neck on Aug. 20, 2009, that Sypien was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Fourteen days later, she underwent a second surgery.

“When I was diagnosed, I had never heard of thyroid cancer,” said Sypien, who began educating herself about the disease soon after she began to feel better.

In 2012, she founded the Butterfly Bandits, a support group that raises awareness and promotes research for thyroid cancer and thyroid disease. She aptly named the group because the thyroid gland resembles a butterfly.

“Nobody detected it all that time,” said Sypien, who is being treated by her 10th endocrinologist. “That’s why I have my group. I don’t want this to happen to other people.”

On Sept. 15, the Butterfly Bandits will hold Tailgate and Cheer for a Cure in Pittsburgh. The tailgate will begin at 10 a.m. at Bettis’ Grille 36 on North Shore Drive. Entertainment will be provided by the band LocaL, which has written a song about thyroid cancer, using Sypien as its inspiration. Donations are welcome. There also will be a butterfly release to symbolize healing.

Following the tailgate, the Pirates will host Thyroid Cancer Awareness Day at PNC Park when they play the Chicago Cubs at 1:35 p.m. Money raised from the two events will benefit the UPCI Multidisciplinary Thyroid Cancer Research Center in Pittsburgh.

Sypien said her first biopsy showed she had thyroiditis, “but nobody treated me.” It was caused by Hashimoto’s disease, a disorder in which the immune system begins attacking the thyroid. The thyroid is a small gland at the base of the neck, below the Adam’s apple, that produces hormones that coordinate many of the body’s functions. The disease, Sypien said, destroyed her thyroid.

Since Sypien had no diagnosis prior to her first surgery, her insurance company refused to approve the procedure, considering it cosmetic. But Sypien opted for the surgery anyway because of the hoarseness in her voice and her inability to swallow.

It’s a good thing she did.

“There are so many people with thyroid cancer … and it can move anywhere. People have it in their brain, lungs and liver,” she said. “You just don’t hear anything about it.”

Treatment protocol following surgery involves radioactive iodine that requires patients to be isolated because of the gamma radiation throughout their body. Sypien already has had one treatment, and she should receive her second treatment at the five-year mark, although her endocrinologist would like to move it up.

“Physically I feel good, but only because I self-treat myself. I go to a natural healing doctor,” she said. “I am a cancer survivor.”

For more information about the Butterfly Bandits or to R.S.V.P. for the tailgate, call Sypien at 412-901-1469.

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