When 13-year-old Alyssa Kukla noticed a lump in her neck last fall, no one was overly concerned. But when the lump didn't go away, doctors sent the Rochester teenager for more extensive testing.
The day the family got the results started out bad, then got far worse.
"I had found out that morning that I had lost my job," said Teri Kukla, Alyssa's mom. "Dr. Akay had called me that afternoon, and said this is highly, highly suspicious for thyroid cancer and I lost it."
She immediately called Alyssa's, dad Mike Kukla.
"You hear those words and just for a minute, you just -- everything stops," Mike said.
How do you tell your 13-year-old daughter she has cancer?
"They didn't really like try and fluff it up or anything. They just told me straight out what it was. We cried a little bit and then it was just over," said Alyssa.
As shock faded, the fight began. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that produces hormones. It's located in the front part of the neck. Nearly 63,000 new cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. Of those, only 2 percent are in children or teenagers.
"It's very rare. It's also rare that thyroid cancer be this aggressive. Hers is a fairly aggressive form," said Dr. Begum Akay, a pediatric surgeon at Beaumont Children's Hospital in Royal Oak. "The treatment for thyroid cancer is mainly surgical. We remove the entire thyroid gland. If it has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, then we have to remove all of the lymph nodes on that side of the neck as well."
Alyssa's cancer had already spread to lymph nodes on both sides of her neck. She would endure two major surgeries to remove her thyroid and more than 55 of her lymph nodes. Everyone was stunned by her strength.
"She's amazing," said Akay. "She was more worried about her parents and her friends worrying about her."
"Amazingly proud. She's come a long, long, long way," said Teri Kukla. "She was always the type of kid that was afraid to go to the dentist even to have her teeth cleaned or go to the doctor. She has surprised us with how grown up she is now, and how much we didn't think she was going to be able to handle and then ending up being stronger than all of us."
Alyssa has a significant scar on her neck from the surgeries, but her attitude about it may surprise you.
"I kinda like it 'cause it makes me stronger. I mean, before, I wasn't able to do anything, but now just feel like I could, I mean, not do everything but almost everything," said Alyssa. "Makes me feel strong and gives me, I guess, life credit. Going through something that not a lot of people get to go through."
Alyssa's fight isn't over. She and her parents just returned from Texas, the closest place where the specialized radioactive iodine treatment she needed was available. The travel costs, lost work and their portion of the medical bills have taken a major toll on the family's finances.
"I've gotta face how I'm gonna go back to work but still be here and still be able to help her at home," said Teri. "That's gonna be the hard part."
"The bills don't stop coming, you're missing time from work, all that stuff, as an adult, you worry about," said Mike.
They try not to let Alyssa feel that pressure, but she knows.
"It just mostly takes up most of their stress, if anything. It's not work, I mean, it's a little bit of the cancer, but it's mostly the financial troubles," said Alyssa.
They've created a fundraising page for people who want to help Alyssa in her fight. They dream about using it to help other patients and their families down the road, in ways big and small.
"Nobody should have to struggle to figure out where they're gonna get the gas money to drive across the country for where their doctors say that they're gonna get the best treatment possible," said Teri.
For now, their focus is on making sure Alyssa accomplishes one goal.
"Live a long, long, healthy life and and just continue to be the caring individual that she is," said Teri.
Alyssa is responding well to treatment, but the risk for recurrence with this type of cancer in children is pretty significant, so she will be closely monitored by doctors going forward.
To visit Alyssa's FundRazr page, click here.
To learn more about thyroid cancer, click here.