Medical student helps discover her own cancer in ultrasound class

ByKatie Kindelan via GMA ABCNews logo
Friday, December 8, 2023
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Sally Rohan's decision to go to medical school may have helped save her life.

Rohan, 27, is currently undergoing treatment for papillary thyroid cancer, a type of cancer that she said was first discovered while she was in a class learning about how to do ultrasounds.

Rohan, a California native who is attending school in New Jersey, said she was learning how to use an ultrasound machine last year as a first-year medical student when she was the first among her classmates to volunteer to get her thyroid checked.

"We were taught how to ultrasound the thyroid because it's a really easy structure to ultrasound," Rohan told "Good Morning America". "We were looking at mine versus what we had seen in the videos that we watched before class, and I remember looking at it and saying, 'Wait, there's something wrong with mine. Mine looks bumpy.'"

Rohan said the instructor told her the bump on her thyroid was a nodule. She said that while nodules are common, the instructor urged her to take a photo of the ultrasound and follow up with a doctor.

Sally Rohan, 27, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer while in medical school.
Courtesy Sally Rohan

A follow-up appointment with her primary care doctor led to bloodwork to check her hormone levels, which she said came back normal. Rohan also said she wasn't experiencing any symptoms of a thyroid complication.

Due largely to a lapse in her medical insurance coverage, Rohan said she didn't get a formal ultrasound of her thyroid until October of this year, nearly one year after discovering the nodule on her thyroid in class.

When the formal ultrasound results came back, Rohan said she was diagnosed with Stage 1 papillary thyroid cancer, the most common of the four main types of thyroid cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, and one with the best overall prognosis.

In Rohan's case, the cancer had also metastasized to her nearby lymph nodes.

"It was a complete shock," Rohan said of receiving the diagnosis, adding that her family has a history of skin cancer, but not thyroid cancer.

Dr. Richard Jermyn, interim dean of the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine, where Rohan is a student, told "GMA" that he too was shocked by Rohan's cancer diagnosis, which could have been missed until much later on were it not for the school's ultrasound class.

File -- An ultrasound machine is photographed in a Planned Parenthood exam room Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Houston.
File -- An ultrasound machine is photographed in a Planned Parenthood exam room Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Houston.
(Photo by Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

"We go to great lengths to demonstrate to students the benefits of collaboration, including working with classmates to learn from joint experiences," Jermyn said in a statement. "The sequence of events that led to Sally's diagnosis and now medical cure is amazing, and spiritual to a degree. It's almost as if her medical school journey was meant to be."

Rohan said that while she continues her studies to become a doctor, her diagnosis is also educating her about what it feels like to be a patient, from understanding medical terminology, to dealing with insurance and balancing appointments and lab work.

"I've learned how much of a full-time job it is to be a patient," she said. "That is a huge thing that I've learned, how disruptive it can be to your life even to just be on the phone that much or to have to deal with getting pre-authorizations for insurance."

Rohan's treatment plan includes undergoing surgery to remove her thyroid and the affected lymph nodes, followed by undergoing a form of radiation therapy known as radioiodine.

Since learning of her diagnosis, Rohan has shared her story on social media, saying she hopes to both demystify the medical process for people and also raise awareness of the need to get screened for cancers.

"The more I share, the more I'm getting messages from people saying that they feel hopeful and they feel inspired," she said. "And also [from] a lot of people who have the same diagnosis, because it is the most common type of thyroid cancer, so I want to just show what I've gone through, and maybe it'll make it less scary for them as well."

Rohan said the experience is also helping to shape how she'll interact with future patients, saying, "I'm definitely learning a lot about how I want to be as a doctor."