After years of exhaustion, depression and weight gain, Amanda Craig had learnt to live with her problems. Then doctors discovered the sinister cause

Some time in the next month, I am going to become a cretin. My future has already been vividly described by the detective writer Dorothy L Sayers in The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey. A beautiful, intelligent woman marries her loathsome doctor, and one day her broken-hearted former lover finds her living like an animal in the remote Basque mountains, "the face white and puffy, the eyes vacant, the mouth drooled open... a dry fringe of rusty hair [clinging] to the half-bald scalp". From his description, Lord Peter Wimsey recognises the symptoms of thyroid deficiency, or hypothyroidism. He travels to Spain, secretly feeds the woman thyroxine, and she is restored to her former self.

Some time in the next month, I am going to become a cretin. My future has already been vividly described by the detective writer Dorothy L Sayers in The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey. A beautiful, intelligent woman marries her loathsome doctor, and one day her broken-hearted former lover finds her living like an animal in the remote Basque mountains, "the face white and puffy, the eyes vacant, the mouth drooled open... a dry fringe of rusty hair [clinging] to the half-bald scalp". From his description, Lord Peter Wimsey recognises the symptoms of thyroid deficiency, or hypothyroidism. He travels to Spain, secretly feeds the woman thyroxine, and she is restored to her former self.

That story has always haunted me, partly because my daughter Leonora was diagnosed as congenitally hypothyroid as a new-born baby. The thyroid, a butterfly shaped gland in the neck, regulates your metabolism and affects every organ in the body, including brain, heart, skin, intestines and muscles. Without a tiny white pill of thyroxine every day, she would have grown up as a dwarf and a cretin, not the tall, beautiful, brainy girl she is.

Leonora wasn't the only one to have something wrong with her thyroid gland. An oncology nurse at the hospital scrutinised my throat and asked if I'd ever had my own levels checked. No, I said. That was almost 12 years ago, and it has taken until this year for my thyroid cancer to be spotted.

I was pretty sick after both my babies were born, and my son was ill, too, with kidney problems. I went on working, writing my third novel, A Vicious Circle. My son got better, and I published a fourth novel. But the nurse's concern stuck in my mind, because I was exhausted all the time, and putting on weight. I asked my GP, twice, if there could possibly be anything wrong with my thyroid, and he sent off a blood test. It came back as normal.

Three years ago, I paid to have my thyroid scanned at a Harley Street clinic. Yes, I was told, there were four or five small lumps. Nothing more was said about these. Oh well, I thought, I just have a lumpy thyroid. Nobody suggested a biopsy to see if the lumps were malignant. Nobody suggested another scan to see if the lumps were growing. Thyroid cancer is quite rare - only 1,300 cases in the UK per year. I crawled away feeling guilty for causing a fuss. I had evening primrose oil suggested for my devastatingly heavy periods, and cognitive therapy for my depression. I took the former, but not the latter.

Last year my fifth novel, Love in Idleness, came out. I had a wonderful new publisher, my children were finally sleeping through the night and I felt completely happy. Yet I was still really tired - and still putting on weight. My periods were so heavy that I had to put a plastic bag under me when I drove, because every other protection would be soaked through in 20 minutes. My husband kept nagging me to see a doctor but I'd burst into tears and say I'd been told I was perfectly healthy.

One day, however, a friend on a newspaper, rang. I was, once again, too ill to write for her. "Amanda, something is wrong with you," she said in her most inexorable voice. "Go and see my doctor in Harley Street."

Reluctantly, I did so. In our 40-minute consultation, Dr Anne Coxon took several blood samples and made quite sure I wasn't bonkers, she was gentle, sensible, wise and talked to me as a person, not another tiresome slot in a seven-minute schedule.

A week later I heard Dr Coxon's voice telling me that antibodies had come up in my blood-test connected to my thyroid. Off I went again to Harley Street to have gel smeared over my throat and a Professor Bartram looking at it on ultrasound. The next day (it was all so quick if you paid, I couldn't get used to it) I was told I had lumps in my thyroid.

"Oh, yes," I said cheerfully, "I know about those." But this time, Dr Coxon did what my NHS doctor failed to do. She asked for a biopsy.

"It's only a 5 per cent chance of cancer," she said, "but I'd just like to be sure."

Having a biopsy taken of something in your throat is not nice. You get a local anaesthetic injection, and then a needle gets pushed in deep and fluid taken out. The needle, guided by the scan, hurt, but although I had a sore throat for a week after, I thought this was all just a precaution. Two days later, I discovered it was not.

"The good news is that it's the commonest kind of thyroid cancer, the papillary," said Dr Coxon's cheerful voice. "But you'll have to have your thyroid out, and I'm afraid it won't be very comfortable."

I had an MRI scan, one of the most horrible hours that I've experienced - lying in a white plastic coffin while a noise like a pneumatic drill vibrated at different frequencies through my body. The scan extended to my heart and lungs, and showed a big shadow over one of my breasts. A not-so-cheerful Dr Coxon arranged for me to have a mammogram immediately.

I must have looked awful going in, because two complete strangers stopped me in the street to ask if I was all right. The one good thing about being seriously ill is discovering just how kind people can be.

I did not have breast cancer, only thyroid cancer. The joy of this was such that I felt slightly ashamed of making any fuss. I learnt now that if you have to have cancer, mine is a great one to have. The thyroid absorbs iodine. Some smart doctor realised that if you give a patient radioactive iodine, it seeks out and destroys any remaining thyroid cells. The nightmare with all cancers is that even if you take out one tumour, it can seed itself elsewhere in the body to grow again. With the thyroid, however, you don't need clumsy, poisonous chemotherapy. You have what all oncologists dream of giving their patients - a magic potion that kills the cancer but leaves everything else.

Providing, that is, you have the thyroid out first. Mr Lynn was spoken of by other doctors with such reverence as the best thyroid surgeon in Britain, that being his patient felt like an honour. He was gentle, kindly and, like his team, utterly professional. I immediately trusted him, which was just as well because he was going to cut my throat.

It was excruciating. Worse than childbirth. I felt if I nodded, my head would fall off. Even with a morphine drip - which, after the first night I got removed because it was sending me insane - the pain was such I could hardly drink. Mr Lynn had removed two malignant carcinomas, one "huge" and difficult, stuck to my voice-box, which was now badly bruised. I could only whisper for several weeks and I couldn't breathe properly, and had to have an oxygen mask. I looked like Frankenstein's monster, with huge stitches across my neck. I got out of hospital three days later, with the thyroxine tablets I'll have to take forever, and radiotherapy still to come.

Between them, Dr Coxon and Mr Lynn saved my life. The cancer hadn't spread to my lymph glands or worse, my spine; it was papillary, the commonest kind of thyroid cancer which, if caught in time when you are under 45, gives you a completely normal life-span. Unlike medullary thyroid cancer, which is caused by a faulty gene or anaplastic cancer, connected to old age, one of the causes of papillary thyroid cancer is radiation.

Where can I have been exposed to that? Well, in France and Italy, where cases of thyroid cancer have radically increased in the past decade, some doctors are convinced it is caused by the fall-out from the explosion at Chernobyl nuclear power station, 20 years ago. The specialist at the Royal Marsden hospital where I am going to have radiation therapy pooh-poohed this, but other doctors to aren't so sure. Mr Lynn says he's convinced of the link, and that he's also seeing a number of cases from Iraq, which he believes may have arisen from the Gulf War.

All of this makes me extremely worried for other, undiagnosed, sufferers out there, particularly other women, as this cancer affects about 10 times more women than men. I was completely failed by my GP, but saved by my husband, friends and two doctors I could pay to see. What if you have none of these?

Two months later, I am still exhausted, but I have gone down a dress-size. My periods are no longer crippling. I feel better in myself than I have done for years. My scar is now a thin red line.

There is more misery to come, when I will have to stop taking the thyroxine pills for a week in order to stimulate absorption of radioactive iodine. I will be a cretin - but only for a fortnight, until I take thyroxine again. Then I, like the woman in Dorothy L Sayers's story, will be back - smaller, smarter and very angry.

Amanda Craig's new novel, 'Love in Idleness', is out now in Abacus paperback, £6.99

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