When Strep Throat Could Signal Something More Serious: Shelby’s Story

By Meredith Whittemore

Strep throat.

It was the diagnosis Shelby Boatwright received over and over. In fact, she was diagnosed with the illness eight times in the winter of 2017-18. It turned out to be the illness that helped her discover something much more serious: thyroid cancer.

“I was tired of getting strep again and again. My primary care physician (PCP) suggested I have an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) take a closer look to see if there was something wrong with my tonsils, so I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Yao. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself,” Boatwright said.

During the exam, Dr. William Yao, MD, an otolaryngologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (TMC), found a nodule on Boatwright’s thyroid. Dr. Yao, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery in McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), performed an ultrasound. Due to the size of the nodule, Dr. Yao recommended that Boatwright undergo a biopsy.

“During a thyroid biopsy, we use a fine needle to remove a small sample of tissue from the gland. The cells are then sent to a pathologist to determine if they’re cancerous,” said Dr. Ron Karni, MD, the otolaryngologist who performed Boatwright’s biopsy.

Boatwright told Dr. Karni she didn’t want to wait to come back to the office to hear the results. No matter the outcome, she wanted him to call  and tell her as quickly as possible.

A Shocking Diagnosis at 25

“When he told me I had thyroid cancer, honestly, I was in shock. I was 25 at the time, and I guess you just never think it’s going to happen to you, especially at my age. But Dr. Karni took such good care of me. I had an appointment the next day to discuss my treatment plan,” Boatwright said.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 52,000 people are diagnosed with thyroid cancer each year, and it is three times more likely to develop in women than in men. However, the survival rate is high.

For Boatwright, successfully treating the cancer meant surgery to remove the tumor. About a week after Boatwright received her diagnosis, Dr. Karni removed the right lobe of her thyroid, including the 2-centimeter tumor.

“Shelby had Stage 1 papillary thyroid cancer and we were able to fully remove the cancer before it spread. Like any cancer, the earlier you find it, the better the chance you have at a removing the tumor without the need for chemotherapy or radiation,” said Dr. Karni, who is also the Division Chief of Head and Neck Surgical Oncology at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

Boatwright spent one night at Memorial Hermann-TMC to recover.

“I had a bit of a sore throat, but I didn’t even need pain medication or anything,” Boatwright said.

Regular Monitoring of Her Remaining Nodules

Boatwright now has regular follow-up appointments with Dr. Karni, as well as an endocrinologist, to monitor her thyroid levels, especially because she has a nodule on the opposite thyroid. While thyroid nodules are fairly common, they can be signs of something more serious and deserve additional screening and possible monitoring, Dr. Karni said.

“While most nodules are benign, you should talk to your PCP or an ENT to evaluate any unusual swelling,” Dr. Karni said. “The thyroid is an important organ when it comes to regulating metabolism, as well as heart and digestive function, so you want to make sure it’s working properly.”

Listen to Your Body

Boatwright says she’s glad she trusted her instincts.

“I just felt sluggish and tired and I knew something else had to be going on. I would encourage people to listen to their bodies, trust their gut, and if you think something is off, go get it checked out,” Boatwright said.

In observance of Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness week, the UTHealth Department of Otorhinolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery will offer free cancer screenings at three Memorial Hermann locations. No appointment is necessary. Learn more here.

Memorial Hermann Cancer Centers provide the entire continuum of cancer care, including prevention, education, screening, diagnosis, treatment, survivorship and rehabilitation. Learn more here.


  1. So happy you got this taken care of Shelby and the inconvenience wasn’t worse. Have some fun with your newfound energy.

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