The year is 1994, and Carmen Kenrich is living the dream.
The 20-something newlywed and her husband Walter “Chip” Kenrich had recently relocated from Washington, D.C. to Boston to be closer to her Long Island-based parents, making the move shortly after an “investigative weekend” visit to the city and interview produced a plum job offer.
Carmen and Chip were busy getting reacquainted with college friends also residing in the area, and she was settling happily into her new position as a health care administrator in charge of surgical specialties with Harvard Community Health Plan when – during a routine workday – Carmen made a discovery that would forever alter her life.
“I’m of Spanish heritage and talk a lot with my hands, and I was in a room with colleagues, talking, talking, talking, when I put my hand to my neck and thought, ‘Well, that’s a big lump on my right side.’ And my knee-jerk reaction was that I had something wrong with my thyroid.”
Previously an emergency medical technician who had also studied to be a physician’s assistant, Carmen immediately booked an appointment with her primary care physician, who initially was skeptical about Carmen’s self-diagnosis, but upon examination confirmed that she had a thyroid nodule (a solid or fluid-filled growth that forms a lump in the thyroid gland). Subsequent blood tests, ultrasound, nuclear scans (with radioactive iodine) and a biopsy with a fine (thin) needle then led to a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.
“It was my first time hearing the diagnosis, and it was literally one of those moments of pure shock,” Carmen recalls. “When you hear the ‘c’ word in those circumstances, it’s so associated with death, and back then there was no internet to look up things, no support organizations at the time that I could call, so I felt incredibly isolated.
“To tell friends or even parents that I had cancer, even though I’m a people person, it was hard to explain and was difficult because I was so young,” she adds. “Plus, I’m a person in my 20s, my friends are partying or just getting married, so it felt like isolation at the highest level for a while there.”
One of Carmen’s saving graces was Dr. Gordon Vineyard, who performed her thyroidectomy, the surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid gland. “Not only was he an accomplished surgeon who was technically superior, but he was also very compassionate and had an excellent bedside manner,” Carmen notes.
Following the surgical procedure, a post-surgery overnight hospital stay and a two-month recuperative period, she was admitted to Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) to undergo radioactive iodine treatment, a procedure in which the patient takes liquid or tablets that contain radioactive iodine. The iodine goes directly to the remaining thyroid tissue, where it is absorbed by the tissue and destroys any remaining thyroid cells in the body. Any excess radioactive iodine not collected by the thyroid cells is eliminated from the body in a few days through urine.
“That was the most interesting experience because I was in a room alone, totally secluded and I couldn’t have visitors,” Carmen recalls. (Editor’s Note: At present, most patients are not hospitalized for radioactive iodine therapy).
Enter saving grace number two: Dr. Jeffrey Garber.
An endocrinologist who had met with Carmen prior to her radioactive iodine treatment, Dr. Garber took over Carmen’s ongoing post-surgery care, prescribing thyroid replacement hormone drugs, testing her levels and adjusting her medication periodically as needed to ensure optimal results. Beyond monitoring and managing her thyroid condition, his diligence and skills were critical in helping the Kenrichs have a family, Carmen believes.
“We weren’t able to conceive and I had an unexplained diagnosis of why we couldn’t have kids, so I always wondered if it was the thyroid. And I went through a lot of IVF (in vitro fertilization) and a lot of hormone therapy, so we worked very closely together on what I was going through, including him looking very closely at all of the treatments,” Carmen notes. “There were so many medication adjustments with all of the P treatments, but he’s a stickler for detail, as they have to be in his specialty, to determine the proper dosage of my medicine.”
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: today Carmen is proud mom to 11-year-old daughter Taylor and eightyear-old son Trace, both conceived via IVF. “My third (seven-year-old daughter Tatum, who was conceived naturally), as I said to Dr. Garber, was my miracle baby,” Carmen says. “A gift from God who said, ‘Here you go, you’ve gone through a lot, so here’s your gift.’”
Cancer-free for 18 years, Carmen is quick to count her many blessings.
These days she is employed by a healthcare leadership search firm as an executive recruiter, spending most days engaged in conversation with physicians under consideration for chief medical officer placements. She has given back to the community, serving as chair of The Wellness Community of Greater Boston, a support organization that provides free services to cancer patients and their families, and as chairperson of the Winchester Republican Town Committee.
But ultimately, it’s time with family that she most cherishes. “I’m a summer person, so what I enjoy most is being on the beach, hanging out with my husband and with the kids on Long Island or East Hampton,” she says.
“When you face a cancer diagnosis at such a young age, then face the challenge that you can’t have kids, then you’re blessed with three healthy children, all you can say is ‘I’m the luckiest person on this Earth. Because look what I have. Look what I have now.’”
Living the dream, indeed.