Thanks to MyCode, her cancer didn’t get the chance to spread.
by Paula Fanken
The information Dawn Snyder got was unexpected. But she’s grateful to have it.
In October 2019, Elysburg resident Dawn Snyder got a call from her primary care provider, Greg Burke, MD, giving her a heads-up that she’d soon be hearing from researchers with Geisinger’s MyCode® Community Health Initiative. They’d found a gene mutation that put her at risk for thyroid cancer.
“I signed up for MyCode to support the research they’re doing and to possibly help my children and grandchildren,” Ms. Snyder explains. “I hadn’t expected them to find anything. But now, after everything that’s happened, I’m very glad they did.”
Soon after Dr. Burke’s call, researchers at MyCode called Ms. Snyder to schedule an appointment. She met with clinical genetics specialist Gary Bellus, MD, PhD, and two genetic counselors, Gretchen Thone and Kerrianne Fry. “The team did an exceptional job of explaining everything to me — including the risks,” Ms. Snyder says. “They answered all my questions and recommended additional blood work.”
“Dawn Snyder’s condition is one of about 30 we look for,” Dr. Bellus explains. “Whether it’s cancer, a cardiovascular issue, a tendency toward seizures or another hereditary issue, the conditions we’re concerned with are all medically actionable. There are steps that can be taken to manage these conditions.”
When Ms. Snyder saw her lab results in myGeisinger, she understood immediately what it meant when it said her tumor markers for medullary thyroid cancer were elevated. Thyroid cancer was no longer just a risk. She had it. “I’ve been a nurse for over 40 years — most of my career was in oncology and palliative medicine. I knew what those results were saying,” she explains.
After speaking with her genetic counselors, Ms. Snyder made an appointment with endocrinologist Madiha Alvi, MD, who ran a series of tests and referred her to Timothy Lindemann, MD, a surgeon who specializes in thyroid and parathyroid surgery. “In less than one week, I saw three specialists,” Ms. Snyder explains. “If someone was booked, a cancellation would occur, and I could be seen immediately. It wasn’t that I was lucky. I felt the Lord’s presence throughout this journey.”
Dr. Lindemann performed an ultrasound and thyroid biopsy. “He was very honest with me,” says Ms. Snyder. “He thought the cancer had probably been there for years, even though I had absolutely no symptoms. In my mind, I was concerned that the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes and possibly other organs.”
Ms. Snyder received a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to assess whether the cancer had spread from her thyroid. This “eyes to thighs” view uses a radioactive drug to show suspicious activity and can often detect disease before it shows up on other imaging tests.
“I got my results on Christmas Eve via myGeisinger. I was a little reluctant to open them, expecting the worst and not wanting to ruin our Christmas,” Ms. Snyder explains. “I said a prayer and opened the email. My bones and organs were fine — the results were completely negative outside the thyroid. I felt the Lord’s presence once again.”
On Dec. 30, Dr. Lindemann removed Ms. Snyder’s thyroid gland and central lymph nodes. The surgery took more than five hours, but it confirmed that the cancer was confined to her thyroid. Now, she just needs to take thyroid replacement medication daily.
“I thank God that I chose to participate in the MyCode program. I was completely asymptomatic. How else would I have known about the cancer?” says Ms. Snyder. “I hope people realize how fortunate we are to have such state-of-the-art healthcare in a rural area. From the research and counseling at MyCode to the diagnostic capabilities of our labs to the skills of our specialists and surgeons — it’s all right here.”
One of the most important aspects of the MyCode program’s discoveries is the fact that genetic mutations can occur in relatives. Ms. Snyder’s counselors worked with her family members so they, too, could understand the risks. Both her sons, her siblings and her cousins have either gotten tested or have their paperwork to be tested. Most results have been negative, but the few who have tested positive are preparing to take their next steps.
Genetic counselor Kerrianne Fry explains that genetic testing isn’t always necessary for family members. “Once we know there is a possible mutation, we can look for symptoms,” she explains. “In many cases there are blood tests and other diagnostics that can be run once we know what we’re looking for. Our goal is to educate people and empower them to talk to and work with their providers to get the care they need.”
Fellow genetic counselor Gretchen Thone agrees. “We encourage genetic testing, but we also understand that some people feel uncomfortable with it,” she says. “We’re also very sensitive to the fact that some results might require people to make lifestyle changes they weren’t expecting — athletes who have an inherited risk for heart problems, for example. We’re here for them if they have questions and concerns. And we work closely with their providers, too.”
As for Ms. Snyder, she’s extremely thankful that she chose to participate in the program. “If I hadn’t gotten my results when I did, who knows what might’ve happened,” she says. “Thanks to MyCode, my family members can be prepared for a brighter future.”
“I signed up for MyCode to support the research they’re doing and to possibly help my children and grandchildren. I hadn’t expected them to find anything. But now, after everything that’s happened, I’m very glad they did.”