For years, Darcie Buffone, a fourth-grade teacher at Armstrong School District’s Shannock Valley Elementary, struggled with weight. She tried diets and lifestyle changes that, for some, would have generated long-lasting results. Then, in 2015, Buffone learned her inability to lose weight was no fault of her own — it was because her thyroid gland was not functioning properly.
The news was sobering — but would get worse. The diagnosis confirmed Buffone’s challenges, yet it also revealed the beginning of a lifelong, life-threatening struggle.
Buffone was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease, or hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and tested positive for thyroid cancer.
“My husband and I were both in shock,” recalls Buffone, whose only distinct symptom was a feeling of trying to swallow over a big hump in her throat starting in October 2015.
To appreciate the depth of what Buffone faced and will confront the rest of her life, it’s helpful to understand what a thyroid gland does.
The small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the base of your neck plays a huge role in the body despite its diminutive size. It’s charged with influencing the function of many of your most important organs — such as heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin. It does this by producing, storing and releasing hormones, the main one being thyroxin, into the bloodstream. Thyroxin increases your metabolic rate and is necessary for regulating growth and development.
A tricky balancing act
In Buffone’s case, her thyroid was underactive. It also had three cancerous tumors attached to it, and there were a few masses on her lymph nodes. Treatment moved quickly, and she never felt prepared for the necessary removal.
In February 2016, Buffone was admitted to Indiana Regional Medical Center where her physician conducted a full thyroidectomy. Thus began the ritual of weekly blood work to monitor her thyroid and calcium levels. Buffone was taking Synthroid, a synthetic thyroxin, but her calcium levels were not under control.
Regarding her blood work, Buffone says, “I’m referred to as a ‘tough stick.’ I’ve learned a lot about my veins and was heavily bruised. Friends and family knew why I was badly bruised, strangers did not. That was always uncomfortable.”
After months of blood work, Buffone’s medical team determined her parathyroid glands were permanently damaged during the surgery. Parathyroid are tiny glands connected to the thyroid and are responsible for regulating the body’s calcium levels. Buffone explains that these glands are stunned during surgery but usually revive. In her case, they did not.
During the months when Buffone’s team was struggling to understand her calcium levels, Buffone had to undergo radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells. Buffone is a devoted wife to her husband, Tim, and mother of two boys, Rocko, 10, and Cruz, 7. During radiation she had to stay quarantined in her parents’ basement so her radiation would not risk damaging her kids’ growing cells. It was a difficult time for their family.
Some relief came in June 2016, when Buffone was declared cancer-free. But losing a thyroid and parathyroid hascommitted her to a rigorous routine to simply function each day.
Each morning Buffone takes her thyroid medicine as soon as she wakes up along with a Natpara injection, a synthetic parathyroid hormone. One-half hour later she begins taking calcium supplements. Then more at noon and in the evening.
“If my calcium regulation is not perfectly balanced I get muscle fatigue, tingling hands, and my eyelids and mouth get twitchy like a spasm,” she says. “Each night I get 4.5-5 hours of restless sleep due to Restless Leg Syndrome because my levels drop throughout the night.”
Buffone has not let her condition slow down her busy life. She loves cheering her boys on at wrestling matches and football games and playing marathon Monopoly with her family. She’s active with the local autism community for her son Rocko, who is on the spectrum. And she is passionate about teaching, taking pride in doing the best she can for her students. Reading, music, traveling and making good memories fill her life with joy.
Buffone finds comfort in her spirituality.
“I believe that Christ wants me to suffer strong and help others through my challenges,” she says. “That’s my daily goal. I just embrace life.”