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Stetler Shines Light on Disease She Once Had

Photo: Caroline Stetler

Caroline Stetler was a carefree 16 when a lump started growing smack dab in the middle of her lower neck. At first she basically ignored it – but her younger brother didn’t.

“He was always much shorter than me, and he kept saying something wasn’t right,” she said.

In this case, brother knew best.

Stetler was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and underwent two successful surgeries to remove the three-centimeter tumor and her thyroid. Healthy and happy in the ensuing dozen years, she rarely thought about the episode until last fall, when she was sitting in Professor Charles Lewis’s In-Depth Journalism class.

Lewis, executive editor of the School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW), asked his students to ponder an unanswered question that always had intrigued them. Stetler’s mind raced straight to thyroid cancer.

“I was wondering about the cause,” she said. “I was hesitant in the beginning, because I didn’t want it to seem like a personal crusade. The first place I went was the National Cancer Institute, and when I saw the data, I almost fell off my chair. Thyroid cancer is the fastest growing cancer among women, and no one’s reporting it.”

Until now.

Stetler’s work morphed into a full-blown investigative project for the IRW, where she is a graduate fellow. She authored four stories, conducted video interviews with survivors, and composed a fact sheet – completing the first student project the workshop has published.
 
“Caroline is the kind of reporter every editor loves,” said Wendell Cochran, the workshop’s senior editor. “She digs deep and doesn’t mind being asked to go back for more. She pushed for answers and worked very hard to understand what she was finding.”

Thyroid diagnoses have increased at a rate of 6.5 percent a year from 1997 to 2006, according to the National Cancer Institute. It is the fastest growing cancer among both women and men in the United States, and no one’s quite sure why.

Stetler’s work has illuminated those facts. Because only about 1,500 people die from thyroid cancer each year, it’s often overlooked. Stetler, 28, is one of the lucky survivors. Despite having her thyroid removed, she has suffered no health ramifications.

A native of Naples, Florida, Stetler was more concerned about her next high school golf tournament than her medical condition. She went on to Wake Forest University, where she majored in English, minored in journalism, and sported a three-handicap on the golf team.

After graduating, she worked as an editor at Golf for Women and Golf Digest magazines before she decided to attend AU for grad school.

“Investigative reporting was always my favorite class in undergrad,” she said. “I really felt like the news media landscape was changing, and I needed digital media skills. It’s been great to learn a little more about HTML, video, flash.”

Stetler began her thyroid cancer research in September, and the project was published on the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s Web site in early May. Over the course of that time, she conducted dozens of interviews, reviewed bundles of documents, and cemented her passion for investigative reporting.

“With the Internet, so much data is available online,” she said. “It’s there if you just take the time to look for it. Unfortunately, with the state of newspapers, they’re cutting back on their investigative reporting. I think this is just another example of if no one’s looking, these stories will go unnoticed.”

Her work has ensured that thyroid cancer will not be among those overlooked.

“The mission of journalism is to shine light in dark places,” Cochran said. “I think Caroline did that extremely well. I hope it brings attention to a medical issue that has largely gone unreported and helps spur the medical community to redouble its research efforts related to thyroid cancer.”