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Cain, now cancer-free, wants others to receive the same level of compassionate care she did during her time of need.

Ragan CainBy 2017, Ragan Cain’s annual thyroid check had become routine, a check mark to complete, and rather unexceptional and unremarkable. In 2010, seven years prior, her physician noticed a nodule on Cain’s thyroid and referred her to an endocrinologist, who biopsied the nodule and diagnosed it as benign. It was benign every year thereafter.

Then, 2017. This time, her physician said the nodule felt slightly different. Cain decided to get a second opinion and re-biopsy the nodule at UAB Medicine with Brooks Vaughn, M.D., assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism.

“This was right before Christmas 2017,” said Cain, who is chief administrative officer for Tacala LLC, overseeing 325 Taco Bell restaurants throughout the Southeast. “[Vaughn] said ‘I’ll call you after Christmas.’”

But then, two days later, the phone rang. It was Vaughn. And it was December 21, four days before Christmas.

“That’s when you’re like ‘This isn’t going to be good news,’” she said.

The thyroid nodule was no longer benign. Cain was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer—the most common type of thyroid cancer—and was immediately connected with Herb Chen, M.D., Fay Fletcher Kerner Endowed Chair in the Department of Surgery at UAB. He met with her just two days later, on December 23.

“I felt lucky to have the doctors meet with me in the days leading up to the holiday,” Cain said.

Chen removed the nodule on January 8, 2018, through a total thyroidectomy, which is the complete removal of the thyroid gland. Two weeks later, Cain returned for a checkup and was told the procedure was successful.

“Dr. Chen and I have become very close friends,” Cain said. “I speak to his residents every year in December and tell my story. I was unique in the fact that I had a negative biopsy; it was my personal choice to get a second opinion. I did, and because of that, I ended up with a different diagnosis and had my thyroid removed and am much better for it.”

Cain said she specifically chose UAB for her second opinion because of its reputation.

“We live in a city with great health care, and I feel very lucky to have UAB in my backyard,” she said. “I am very loyal to UAB and understand it for what it is now.”

Today, Cain is cancer free and still has regular checkups with Vaughn at UAB. Both he and Chen saved her life—and now, Cain wants to give back to UAB through the Ragan D. Cain Endowed Scholar in Endocrine Surgery, a gift that will allow for enhanced research and, eventually, the creation of an endowed professorship, Chen said.

“It will allow us to recruit and retain the most talented endocrine surgeons in the world to UAB,” he said. “Creating this professorship will also allow UAB to be a major endocrine surgery center and provide the best care for patients with advanced thyroid cancer and other endocrine diseases.”

It allows Cain’s home of Birmingham to continue to have the best medical care possible, medical care like that provided by Chen, who Cain said has been a “tremendous gift” to her.

“He came into my life at a point when I had a diagnosis more serious than any other I’d personally encountered,” Cain said. “He has been kind, compassionate and easy to work with and understand. After surgery—which he did a wonderful job with—he helped with my recovery and became a personal friend. He has trusted me to tell my story; there’s some healing in being able to tell your story. This gift has been a way to give back to him and help him with needs he had in his own department. We’ve really developed a mutual trust and respect for one another.”

Cain said she hopes her gift will help someone else who gets an unexpected diagnosis just as she did receive compassionate and competent care, resulting in being fully cancer free.

“I hope, of course, it can help others who encounter papillary thyroid cancer or some other more serious thyroid cancer or help UAB be a part of developing more advanced treatments to help save lives and improve the quality of life for people,” she said. 

The ultimate goal? To bring good, high-quality, well-trained physicians to UAB and help patients with papillary or other types of thyroid cancers or diseases find themselves not only cancer-free but deeply supported, just as Cain did four Christmases ago. UAB was a gift to Cain in her moment of need that holiday season; now, Cain hopes, her gift can continue that legacy of care for many holidays to come.


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