PROVO — When Sharla Morgan gets her nurse practitioner's license from BYU this fall, she will be able to offer her patients far more than expertise.
Morgan, 28, will be joining the profession as a thyroid cancer survivor.
"I think for her age and what she went through, it gives her empathy that is often not seen until someone is older and has gone through more life experiences," said Sabrina Jarvis, assistant teaching professor at BYU's College of Nursing.
"I think it has brought an element to Sharla's journey that most people can't even understand."
In September 2009, Jarvis was watching Morgan and other students practice head and neck assessments, when she noticed something out of the ordinary — a lump in Morgan's throat that was only visible for a second and in the right light, when Morgan swallowed.
After further examination, Jarvis recommended that Morgan, then 26, get the abnormality checked out. Morgan consulted Dr. Seth Riddle, an ear, nose and throat doctor she has worked with in the operating room at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. She was later diagnosed with metastatic papillary thyroid cancer, which means that the cancer had already started to spread.
Cancer had impacted 18 of 32 lymph nodes in her body, and all of them, including her thyroid, had to be removed.
"It has been a little surreal," Morgan said Wednesday, recalling her experience. "I remember waiting for test results and not knowing what it was and then feeling some relief that I got an answer, and that it was cancer. It was nice to know what to expect at that point."
Thyroid disorders, the nursing student said, are fairly common, especially in women. Thyroid cancer is less common but is one of the fastest increasing cancers in the country, as more people are being diagnosed with better detection devices and screening.
Morgan underwent surgery and at least two rounds of a specialized radioactive iodine treatment, which destroys any remaining thyroid tissue or cancerous cells after surgery. Riddle and others Morgan knew quite well as colleagues performed the operation and assisted her during the consequential treatment.
"Instead of going to work that day, I went to the same place, just as a patient," she said. "It was an awesome experience to be with nurses and doctors that I knew really well. I felt very at peace and that I was being watched out for."
In January, Morgan, a native of Paul, Idaho, received her first clean bill of health since the cancer was discovered. She returned to school and is expecting to graduate with the master's degree in August.
"I owe credit completely to my teacher, for being in the right spot that day and for just paying attention," Morgan said, adding that it is a benefit to have a teacher who is also a practicing nurse practitioner.
The ordeal turned out to be a blessing in Morgan's life, as it has changed the way she intends to practice medicine.
"I became a nurse because I always wanted to be able to help people, and also because I wanted to know how to help myself in an emergency," Morgan said. Though cancer, she said, "is nothing that you would ever expect to hear, especially at 26 years old."
Morgan has accepted a job to work with Riddle and a specialized team of physicians at the Thyroid Institute of Utah, where she hopes to help patients going through similar situations as her own.
"It's been a wonderful experience," Morgan said Wednesday. "I've learned that things definitely happen for a reason."