Researcher says Shannon O’Brien’s recent weight gain after surgery ‘risks rapidly deteriorating her health’
A woman’s unexplained weight gain appears to be the result of thyroid cancer, and her hospital is warning doctors to ask patients whether they are overweight.
After Shannon O’Brien, 41, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, she developed a large cyst on her thyroid.
Her weight rose rapidly over the next month and is now 14kg (31lb) heavier than she was when she went into hospital.
“On her 6th day in hospital, the thyroid mass ruptured, causing her subsequent weight gain of over nine kilograms in seven days,” said physician and researcher Dr Douglas Short.
“Her symptoms, which included feeling under pain in her arm and shoulder, itching and tingling, rapid weight gain and prolonged weight loss, should have raised her suspicion to a blood test to measure thyroid hormone levels.”
Doctors at Cardiff primary care trust (PCT) want to avoid a repeat of what occurred in O’Brien’s case, hoping to raise awareness among the public that potentially fatal low thyroid levels are often picked up by a blood test.
Low levels of thyroid hormone can produce hypothyroidism, and can have deadly consequences if not treated quickly.
But in O’Brien’s case, the diagnosis was delayed by doctors, who gave her a thyroid medication which made her feel unwell and agitated – and which, in turn, promoted her weight gain.
This raised questions over whether her weight gain could have been clinically dangerous, and the problem may be indicative of a broader problem in the UK.
Short said that if diagnosed at an early stage, the thyroid cancer could be removed with minimal damage. It would have a 20% chance of survival and a good chance of being cured if treated for the very early stages of the cancer, he said.
“You want to remove the whole thyroid so you only have to do it once,” he told the Guardian. “But if it hadn’t ruptured, she would have needed a painkiller for the scar and there may have been permanent damage.”
Short noted that in 16 of the 24 cases of a similar surgical operation carried out in the US, patients suffered from low thyroid hormone levels and have suffered a poor prognosis.
“If patients are presenting with heavy weight gain and thyroid symptoms before treatment, in that case we would have to ask about it,” he said.
“Women have a greater chance of having hypothyroidism, and men are often unaware that they have a condition that they have been ignored about for many years,” he said.
“They may have been growing tired easily or seemed tired on their first evening back from holiday, but their symptoms never waned.”
In some cases, the thyroid disorder is caused by bacteria that enters the body through the mouth or throat or through surgery. The healthy thyroid gland in the neck performs the crucial role of making and releasing hormones which control the body’s vital functions, including the production of energy, blood sugar and bone growth.
O’Brien’s consultant, paediatric endocrinologist Dr Jamie Bleakley, believes a genetic defect means a part of her thyroid gland has been damaged.
Bleakley is also leading research into hypothyroidism through Cardiff’s NIHR Biomedical Research Centre. He believes treatment should only be given when hypothyroidism is diagnosed.
O’Brien is recovering from the operation and is expected to be allowed home this week.
“We are hopeful that her treatment will significantly improve her quality of life and that she will make a full recovery,” Bleakley said.