My name is Juree Bentrem and I am 33 years old. Born and raised in sunny California. I grew up in the northern parts of Cali. I made my way back down to SoCal after graduating high school and have been living in Long beach for the past 16 years.
Both my parents migrated from the Philippines and seeing that my siblings and I are the first generation, we had a very old school / traditional upbringing which I can truly appreciate today. I will always remember how important it was in our household to keep healthy. My dad always made sure we took our vitamins every day and my mom always added some kind of vegetable with every meal she made. It wasn't fun at the time but let me tell you, that daily vitamin and veggie routine we learned growing up turned into a habit and now I’m subconsciously implementing it into my adult life, passing it down to my daughter. Thanks to my parents, that obsession has come full circle.
So I feel like my story doesn't really begin until March of 2016, the year I got pregnant with my daughter. Because I had a miscarriage the year prior, I was very scared and nervous to announce my pregnancy to anyone even after my first trimester, but we were all so happy and excited.
I’ll never forget my 30 week prenatal follow up. The nurse practitioner who did my check up that day noticed something in my neck. She said that it may be nothing, but I had a gut feeling that it still needed to be looked into. So she had me go in for a neck ultrasound. Sure enough, they found a nodule smaller than my pinky nail. The tech who performed my neck ultrasound wasn’t authorized to give me a diagnosis but gave the results to my doctor who then had me come back to get a biopsy done. It’s crazy to think that while I was going through these motions, I didn't even think anything of it. I just thought: it's nothing, I feel fine and they're just being extra thorough because I’m literally growing a tiny human inside of me.. right??
A couple days after my biopsy I went in to see my doctor. That's when he tells my husband and I: “You have papillary thyroid carcinoma. I'm so sorry.... ”
At that moment I didn't understand what that meant. I felt like my brain just went blank and I was just numb. I had no reaction but saw the worried face my husband had and I was so confused. I really didn't know how I was supposed to feel.
My doctor referred me to an oncologist, that's when my heart sank but in some way I still felt so numb. The news didn't really hit me until we got home and that's when I broke down while my husband held me.
We had so many questions: What does this mean for our baby? Will I be able to have this baby full term? Do I have to be on some kind of treatment during my pregnancy?
Cancer is such a scary word, especially while you're pregnant.
We met with the oncologist and he gave us a better understanding of thyroid cancer. We were told that because Thyroid cancer can be a very slow growing cancer, it’s possible that I could have already had it this way before I got pregnant and never knew it was there. It’s just unfortunate to have found out while I was pregnant, however, still very very lucky to catch it at its early stages. He assured us that since this cancer was still in its early stages, treatment was not needed during my pregnancy. He said that I will have my baby full term and was able to wait to give birth to a healthy baby girl before I went in to have surgery to get the cancer removed. The oncologist then referred me to an ENT surgeon (Ears Nose & Throat Surgeon) to schedule a surgery date to remove my thyroid gland. I was then scheduled to have surgery three months after I gave birth to my daughter.
Fast forward to my pre-op, I was told that only the right side of my thyroid gland would be removed because that’s where the cancer lived. I thought, ok sounds good, I do remember the oncologist said that the whole gland would be removed but I trusted the ENT surgeon and agreed to just have the right side removed because he explained that the left side of my thyroid looked very healthy and there was no need to do a full thyroidectomy.
After my surgery, other than being a new mom, I felt a little better because I was told that I no longer had this cancer in me. All I had to worry about was keeping me and my family happy and healthy.
2 years later I found myself becoming extremely lethargic most days, I had brain fog, and felt tenderness in my neck area. At first I thought maybe it's because I’m a mom and it's normal to feel exhausted right? But because I felt tenderness in my neck I somehow felt the need to find an Endocrinologist to get a 2nd opinion. The current one I was seeing at the time kept telling me I was “good”.
If you’re wondering what an endocrinologist is, it's a doctor who specializes in hormone related diseases and conditions one of them being thyroid dysfunction.
After meeting with the new endocrinologist he did a thorough check up with blood work and another neck ultrasound. At this point it felt like it was deja vu. I had a gut feeling of what was to come. When the Endocrinologist told me they found 3 enlarged nodules on my ultrasound he had me go in for a biopsy. When I went in for my biopsy 3 days later they found 6 enlarged nodules and found cancer in all 6 of them. I was then scheduled to see another ENT surgeon who told me that the cancer had spread all throughout my trachea, under soft tissue in my neck area and it had also affected a majority of my lymph nodes. So I basically went from finding cancer at its early stages, to no cancer, and then stage 3 papillary thyroid carcinoma.
It was scary, and this time around I couldn't hold my tears back.
I kept blaming myself and asking what I did I do wrong? How is it even possible for this cancer to come back worse than before? I was told that although thyroid cancer has a very high survival rate it is also a very tricky one to deal with. It's hidden, it starts off very small and you can go on for years not knowing you have this cancer, until it’s either metastasized or you start feeling weird lumps in your neck. Thankfully, I listened to my body and my gut to seek an endocrinologist.
I was then scheduled to have a full thyroidectomy and a neck dissection right away. The 2nd surgery was a lot more invasive than the first since the surgeon had to cut through my neck muscles to remove the cancer. Recovery definitely wasn't easy the 2nd time around. I couldn't lift my arms past my shoulders, brushing my teeth was a struggle and the hardest thing was not being able to carry my daughter. It broke my heart but I was lucky enough to still have the ability to give her as many hugs as I could.
Knowing I had cancer while I was a mom really helped me focus on being better to myself mentally, physically and spiritually. I knew that if I didn’t take care of myself, Wyatt would see that and I never want her to feel or think that her mom never took care of herself. As parents we do our very best to raise kind humans and that’s not only being kind to others but also kind to themselves.
I know 2020 wasn’t very kind to us but it’s also been a blessing for my family. It’s crazy to even say out loud but we were able to open a business in the middle of the pandemic. My husband and a couple of his buddies opened up a restaurant called “Smoke and fire Social Eatery” back in June 2020. It was probably the scariest and most exciting thing we’ve ever done.
Working a full time M-F job, being a mom and supporting a crazy business plan was A LOT to handle but we pushed through all the sacrifices and once the restaurant kicked off, it REALLY kicked off. We are all so grateful and blessed to be given the biggest opportunity of our lives and keep it growing.
Today I am cancer free and although the nerves around my neck and shoulders are still shot. I am still so thankful to have gone through all of it. Things happen for a reason and I truly believe that God gave me a daughter to save my life. Other than beating cancer, she is my greatest accomplishment. I also couldn't have pushed through this journey without my husband, my family and close friends. I would have never thought of myself to be the resilient person I am today.
Life is never perfect but it is so precious. Trust your gut, be present and know the importance of nourishing your body and mind. I love to tell people that it’s ok to cry and it’s ok to feel defeated but just know you are so much stronger than you think.. With a storm comes a rainbow and you’re not alone.
- Juree Bentrem