By Dan Silvia, Communications Manager
Liz Pettinger was back on stage to help open Bellevue University’s winter commencement ceremony Saturday, Jan. 27, when she sang the National Anthem. It’s something she’s done countless times before.
Pettinger, a nine-year veteran of Bellevue University and currently the Director of Key Account Management and Operations, was diagnosed in October 2016. Doctors and friends tried to reassure her that thyroid cancer was a “good” cancer with a survival rate of over 99 percent if the cancer is restricted to the thyroid itself and a 98 percent survival rate if the cancer has spread only to surrounding tissues, organs, and/or regional lymph nodes. Pettinger’s cancer fell into the latter category.
She was reassured by the information, but still…
“When I was diagnosed with cancer everyone who talked with me said, ‘oh, you have the good one.’ What does that mean? I have cancer. I still see that as a scary word,” she said.
What it meant was surgery to remove her thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland that sits low on the front of the neck. Complications from the surgery can include damage to the parathyroid glands which can lead to low blood calcium levels and temporary or permanent hoarseness or loss of voice.
Pettinger underwent surgery at Omaha’s Methodist Hospital in November 2016 followed by radioactive iodine therapy to destroy any remaining thyroid cells. The treatment required Pettinger to have no contact with people and pets for 10 days afterward. She did indeed lose her voice following the surgery and wondered if and when her it would return.
“I’ve been singing my whole life. Having cancer around something that I use daily and is a part of who I am was hard to swallow,” she said. “There was a very real chance that I would not be able to speak again. Although those percentages, they kept telling me, were very low, you never know what can happen.”
Pettinger worried that losing her voice would not only cost her one of the things that gave her the most joy, but also impact her ability to perform her job and to be a good parent to her kids, five-year-old David and three-year old Michael.
“Every day that went by, every week that went by, it was scary thinking my whole life is changing,” she said.
But, ever so slowly, her voice did begin to return. An optimistic attitude helped her overcome those moments of doubt and a strong support system of her family, including husband, Ben, a former admissions counselor at Bellevue University and currently a training specialist at Union Pacific, her doctors and nurses, and her Bellevue University colleagues helped carry her through.
“Bellevue was very supportive. My team is very much like a family. Everyone supports each other and helps each other whether it is a work project or something outside of work,” Pettinger said. “It does make you want to come back stronger. The support helps you become more passionate about what you do. Now that I have a chance to do it again, I’m excited to do it, I’m ready to do it, I want to change lives and that’s what we do at Bellevue University.”
Today, Pettinger is cancer-free. Her parathyroid glands did suffer damage and she will likely have to take calcium supplements for rest of her life. She also underwent a year of physical therapy to help get the trapezius muscles in her back, which were frozen, back into shape.
She first returned to the graduation stage to sing the national anthem for the spring 2017 commencement ceremony and has been in fine voice ever since.
“As far as my voice, it is basically back. I’m just much, much more aware of how I utilize my voice now,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like anything even happened. To have that back was a big win for me.”