Gabriella Barboza, 22, wasn’t expecting to become an actual patient when she volunteered for a demonstration during one of her medical classes at an undisclosed university in Brazil in 2020. The third-year medical student was asked to play the patient while her professor, Dr. Daniel Lichtenthaler, showed the class how to test for neck cancer.
But she played the role a little too well. Her professor discovered signs in line with neck cancer and encouraged Barboza to have her neck inspected for real by seeing a specialist.
Barboza took his advice and went to see a doctor who diagnosed her with a form of thyroid cancer called papillary thyroid carcinoma (PTC).
“When I found out, my world collapsed,” she said. “I kept thinking: ‘I’m too young to face this. I cried a lot and didn’t want to believe it. It’s a moment when you see things can end.”
PTC is the most common form of thyroid cancer and tends to be common in women under 40. The condition affects around 200,000 Americans every year, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Experts still aren’t sure what causes PTC, but it is likely a mix of genetics, environmental factors, and may be a side-effect of radiation for other types of cancer. However, PTC is usually slow to progress and is mostly treatable. “Well-differentiated tumors [associated with PTC] can be treated and can usually be cured,” says the NCI.
Symptoms may be slow to appear, but the condition can lead to breathing and swallowing problems and a lump in the throat.
By the time the doctors discovered her cancer, it had already spread to other areas of her body, including her esophagus. However, they were confident that Barboza could still beat it.
The team was able to treat it by removing her thyroid and neck tumor. She is also undergoing iodine therapy to kill lingering cancer cells.
By 2021, Barboza was cancer free.
Now that she is on the road to recovery, Barboza said the experience helped her realize she made the right choice by deciding to become a doctor herself. It taught her how it feels to be a patient waiting for a life-changing diagnosis.
“I always wanted to be a doctor to take care of others and heal people, regardless of specialty,” she said. “But after what I went through as a patient, I think my perspective has changed.”
She is also thankful she volunteered for the demonstration, or her condition could’ve been much worse.
“Maybe I wouldn’t have discovered the disease so soon, my diagnosis would have taken much longer, and it could have been more serious,” she said.
Barboza has been documenting her story on social media to encourage other young women to get tested for thyroid cancer.
“After months of struggle, I want to record this remarkable moment in my life, which has made me a better person and has made me see the world in a different way,” Barboza said online. “Once I learned the treatment had been successful, I was very happy.”