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Senior Year

The mysterious lump on the side of her neck … the tests at the local doctor’s office … the quiet phone call.

For Kasey Aune, moments from the summer of 2009 still bring tears. “You never forget what it’s like to hear the word cancer,” says the college freshman, sitting in a dormitory lounge at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. She was at summer basketball camp in Bismarck, N.D., when her doctor called.

"Fighting cancer was not what I expected in my senior year of high school," she says.
"But I really believe everything happens for a reason. God needed a strong one to do this and he chose me..."

Surgery, but first…

Tests and scans at Sanford in Fargo showed Kasey had advanced thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer is rare, especially in someone as young as Kasey. But with surgical treatment, it's highly curable.

Kasey refused to let cancer slow her down. She met with Dr. Michael Traynor, Sanford endocrine surgeon, and posed two questions: “When can I get back to sports?" and "When can I get back to school?”

Surgery was initially planned for August 2009, but Kasey's medical course took an unusual turn. Besides thyroid cancer, she had hyperthyroidism -- a condition that required management before any surgery could take place. Dr. Traynor called on the expertise of Dr. Thomas Moraghan, Sanford endocrinologist.

“He played a critical role,” says Dr. Traynor. "A key step involved blocking thyroid function so the surgery could proceed safely and without complications. In Kasey’s situation this was especially difficult because the hyperthyroidism likely involved the tumor itself."

For the next few months, Kasey made weekly trips from her hometown of Fairdale, N.D., to Sanford in Fargo -- 165 miles each way. The trips became increasingly difficult because she was exhausted -- likely the result of the cancer, the hyperthyroidism and her continued involvement in sports and activities. She kept the struggle to herself.

"Every time I went to Fargo, I hoped they'd say everything's clear for surgery," she says. "I just wanted to get it all behind me so I could get on with my life."

By October, all the tests, medications and persistence paid off. Dr. Moraghan successfully addressed the hyperthyroidism, setting the stage for a safe surgery.

Treatment amid life

On Oct. 6, the day after she was voted homecoming queen at Adams-Edmore High School, Kasey underwent surgery.

“I was so ready!” she says. Kasey and her parents had confidence in Dr. Traynor, a surgeon with 25 years’ experience who performs 250 major endocrine surgeries a year. In endocrine surgery, the connection between success and volume is clearly documented.

The major surgery involved removing the cancerous thyroid and affected lymph nodes. A week and five days later the high school senior played volleyball to the roar of a cheering crowd.

“I was motivated to make a fast recovery,” she says.

Several weeks later, Kasey pursued her final treatment step: a precisely dosed radioactive iodine pill to destroy any remaining cancer cells that could pose danger.

Little things

Today Kasey's regimen includes daily thyroid medication and diligent follow-up with Dr. Moraghan, including blood tests and ultrasounds of the neck.

She and her medical team see a bright future. “I want all the normal stuff --a career, marriage, family,” she says.

She also wants a life of ... moments. "One lesson I've learned in going through all this is little things matter," says Kasey. A sign on her dormitory door is a constant reminder: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away."

Learn more about Sanford Cancer.

Posted Date: January 2011