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Wilmot Stories

Sam Julian

Papillary Thyroid Cancer

During the summer before senior year of high school, most kids are focused on spending time with friends, working a summer job or perhaps attending camps. Sam Julian was focused on football and the upcoming season – until cancer changed that.

About a year before his diagnosis, Sam had a bad virus and noticed his neck was enlarged on both sides. Unfortunately, the swelling didn’t go away and when he went in for his physical to participate in the 2018 football season, the doctor was concerned and sent Sam for an ultrasound and biopsy.

On July 23, 2018, Sam learned he had thyroid cancer and it dramatically changed his perspective.

“It was kind of a whole 180 on life. I was worried about simple things like football and friends— things that an 18-year-old going into his senior year would worry about. Now I’m worried about having cancer,” he said. “You always see people who have cancer on TV and in movies, but you never know what it’s really like until you have it.”

From that moment, treatment proceeded quickly. Sam celebrated his 18th birthday Aug. 2 with about 30 friends. Five days later, he had a seven-hour surgery at Wilmot Cancer Institute with Paul van der Sloot, M.D., who specializes in treating thyroid and head and neck cancers. Van der Sloot removed Sam’s thyroid as well as 63 lymph nodes. Sam spent the next five days at Wilmot, where many friends and family – and even his high school principal – came to visit, which helped him feel better. He also credits his care team for helping him heal.

“I received good care,” he said. “I really liked my nurses. They were so nice.”

Sam’s healing journey will continue with radioactive iodine therapy given under Vaseem Chengazi, M.D., Ph.D. The medication is used to destroy any thyroid tissue that wasn’t removed during surgery or catch any cancer cells that may still be in lymph nodes or other parts of the body. He also continues to see Ismat Shafiq, M.B.B.S., in endocrinology as well as a new primary care provider as of Aug.1, Charlene Conners, M.D. Carolyn Ruffing, R.N., who works with head and neck cancer patients at Wilmot, has also played a major part in Sam’s care.

In the meantime, Sam and his family were excited to share some good news: His first PET scan after surgery showed no cancer. Despite the good news, for Sam, the hardest part is not being able to do much – particularly, not being able to play football – while he recovers from surgery.

As he eases back into practice, Sam anticipates playing later in the season, when he will hopefully receive the green light to get back on the football field. Meanwhile, his teammates remain supportive. They’re all volunteering at the 2018 Wilmot Warrior Walk in Sam’s honor. They’re also wearing stickers with Sam’s initials on their helmets in his honor until he can return to the field.

While Sam is still trying to make sense of everything that’s happened to him so quickly, he is already taking lessons away from this that might help him on the field, too.

“It’s definitely taught me to be strong and it really puts life in a perspective,” he said. 

“You always see people who have cancer on TV and in movies, but you never know what it’s really like until you have it.”