Dr. Elena M. Acquisto-Treaster didn’t have time for thyroid cancer when it came calling four years ago.
She was studying chiropractic care and applied clinical nutrition at the New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls at the time.
Cancer didn’t care. Her allergist felt a mass on the right side of her neck after she decided – on a whim, during the last few minutes of an office visit – to tell him she’d felt run down. She thought it was school-related.
“I can’t tell you how many times I cried in clinic after the diagnosis,” said Acquisto-Treaster, 46, a Boston native who splits her time these days between nearby Orchard Park and Wexford, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. “I had two very close friends who were in chiropractic school with me. I let them palpate (examine) my throat. Not many chiropractors get to palpate an enlarged thyroid gland.”
Since her diagnosis and treatment, Acquisto-Treaster has been on a mission to better understand how she got such a serious condition that doesn’t run in her family. As she digs for information – she’s unearthed several research studies – she also is sharing what she’s learning with her fellow chiropractors, and encouraging them to check their patients for enlarged thyroids.
“I wanted to surround myself with positive people,” she said.
You must be thankful to your allergist in Pennsylvania for finding your cancer.
People should not be afraid to talk with their doctors, be open with them and have a good relationship with them. But I also encourage doctors – not only physicians, but my fellow chiropractors – to listen.
What does a thyroid gland look like?
It’s butterfly in shape. It lies on either side of your esophagus below your sternal notch. It makes thyroid hormone and you need that to help with your metabolism. It has other roles. When you’re a child, that gland helps with growth and development. The right side was removed and confirmed to be cancerous. The good thing was that it was totally walled off. The doctors wanted to go back and remove all of it but they couldn’t prove to me that there was cancer in the other side. I thought, ‘That’s part of me; it’s a gland, it has a purpose.’ My allergist continues to monitor the left side.
Why do you place such importance on encouraging doctors to examine the thyroid?
Most cases of thyroid cancer are slow growing and the thing about it is most people don’t have any symptoms. One of the doctors who did the biopsy said I could have had it five, maybe 10 years. If it’s caught right away, it usually doesn’t spread. … If we can get people to the proper medical professional earlier, their treatment might not have to be as aggressive.
Can you talk about how nutrition played a role?
Before I was diagnosed, I noticed I was craving sugar like crazy. Later on, I found out when I get farther through my nutrition program is that refined sugar feeds cancer cells, it’s their fuel, and it also suppresses the immune system. Three to four months after my surgery, I stopped craving sugar. My birthday is right before Christmas and I told my husband (Eric Treaster, who is in graduate school at Canisius College) a couple years ago, ‘Stop with the birthday cakes. I can’t take them; they’re too sweet. I’d rather have a bowl of fruit and you and the cat can sing Happy Birthday to me,’ and he does. Last year, I had a big bowl of strawberries.
I came across this Western New York study. They looked at Western New York because of ‘Areas of Concern.’ New York State has six Areas of Concern; Western New York has three of them: Buffalo Creek, the Niagara River and Eighteen Mile Creek. They have similar environmental contaminants: dioxins, pherons, PCBs and pesticides. These chemicals are known thyroid disruptors. I looked specifically at SEER from 2013: the Surveillance Epidemiology End Results program. Erie County averages 149 cases of thyroid cancer per 100,000 individuals. But if you look at the counties that surround it, it’s a lot less.
How are you working right now?
Mainly in Pennsylvania, mainly with nutrition patients. I’m licensed both in New York and Pennsylvania. I teach nutrition down there at the Community College of Allegheny County and I also like educating my fellow chiropractors. I’m working with New York Chiropractic College, which has approved my course material on thyroid cancer, to get it approved in different states. I’m working to get this developed as a continuing education course.