Beaufort Memorial’s Living Well Blog brings health and wellness to Lowcountry living.

Sophia Vergara's Thyroid Cancer Story

Posted by Cancer Care Team on Jan 11, 2017 10:10:59 AM

A double threat of acting chops and stunning looks have made Sofia Vergara a leading lady in Hollywood. Try not to be charmed by her charisma; it’s impossible.

The Colombian-born actress and model can be serious, however: One of her public roles involves speaking out about a disease whose after effects she manages every day. In 2000, Vergara—almost a decade before landing her laugh-out-loud role as spitfire Gloria Delgado-Pritchett on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family”—was given a serious, real-life diagnosis: thyroid cancer. The butterfly-shaped gland at the base of her neck would have to be removed.

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Sofia Vergara married husband Joe Manganiello in 2015.

Vergara, now 44, couldn’t believe the news. “I was in shock,” she recalled to The New York Times. “I was 28 and I wasn’t smoking. I wasn’t doing many things that are unhealthy.” Such a scenario isn’t unusual. R. Michael Tuttle, M.D., a medical adviser for the Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association, says little is known about what causes cancer (and other disorders) of the thyroid, a vital endocrine gland. Its job is to secrete hormones necessary for regulating temperature, heart rate, mood and metabolism, among other things. It is, as Tuttle explains, “your body’s speedometer.”

Fortunately, for the 20 million Americans believed to have some form of thyroid disease, most issues are highly treatable with medication and, where cancer is concerned, surgery. “If you know what to do and find the right care,” Vergara told Parade magazine, “you can live a normal life.” 

Like Vergara, many people in the early stages of thyroid cancer have no symptoms. In fact, Tuttle says, the cancer is often detected unexpectedly when testing for other health conditions. Those with more advanced cases may experience clearer signs of potential trouble: hoarseness, difficulty swallowing or the emergence of nodules (solid or fluid-fi lled lumps that, although common, are cancerous less than 10 percent of the time). 

In either scenario, a doctor will feel around your neck for abnormalities before deciding whether to order diagnostic tests such as blood work or an ultrasound. That’s how an otherwise healthy Vergara was first diagnosed. She took her son to an endocrinologist, concerned about a family history of diabetes. The doctor checked her son and then examined Vergara, too; he found a lump in her neck.

“It’s not like colon cancer or breast cancer, where there are certain screenings,” says Tuttle, who has treated more than 2,000 patients with thyroid cancer. The most common and often slow growing forms are known as papillary and follicular thyroid cancer; combined, they account for about 90 percent of cases. Other variations, including medullary and anaplastic, are much rarer, but typically more aggressive and tougher to treat.

Total or partial surgical removal of the thyroid is usually quick. Most folks, Tuttle says, are back to work within a few days. Some, including Vergara, have to ingest radioactive iodine via tablets to fully eradicate the cancer. Others with more aggressive tumors may need chemotherapy.

The complete loss of one’s thyroid, meanwhile, leaves a person hypothyroid—in other words, unable to make enough thyroid hormone for the body to work properly. That requires a lifetime of daily medicine to simulate the absent function. “We give the body the same hormone that the thyroid was producing,” says Antonio Bianco, M.D., president of the American Thyroid Association. “The body, in fact, does not know the difference.”

Finding the proper dosage may require some tweaks, though. Vergara, for one, says she “religiously” sees her doctor and has her thyroid levels checked every three to six months. “The last thing I do at night is get my pill ready, and the first thing I do in the morning is take the pill before I jump in the shower,” she told the Spanish language newspaper La Opinión. “I don’t think about it anymore.” Also helping Vergara and plenty of others take the diagnosis off their minds: The five-year survival rate of papillary and follicular thyroid cancers, when caught early, is nearly 100 percent.

Thyroid cancer is the most rapidly increasing cancer in the U.S. Although still rare, it was expected to include about 62,450 new cases in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. That, experts say, doesn’t signal an epidemic but instead means greater awareness and detection of thyroid disease, thanks to public advocates like Vergara and to more advanced diagnostic methods.

Recurrence, though, is a risk—even years after surgery—which means continuing a dialogue with one’s doctor and living healthfully are key. By working with a personal trainer to develop an exercise plan and maintain a balanced diet, Vergara is doing her part. With a bit of wiggle room, of course. “You have to live your life and be happy,” Vergara told the Huffington Post, noting that she continues to enjoy dessert and the occasional cocktail. “But it’s important to go to the doctor, to have your checkups, to work out, eat healthy, everything. Do everything that you can.”

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, here are a few questions you’ll want to make sure to ask your physician. 

Photo courtesy of Winter 2016 issue of Living Well.

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