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Surviving Thyroid Cancer: Sofia Vergara's Story

How this actress and mom faced a health scare early in her career.

Thyroid Cancer 101

Thyroid cancer is relatively rare -- only about 60,000 U.S. cases are diagnosed each year -- and it's one of the most survivable cancers, with a 5-year survival rate of nearly 100% for cases caught early, like Vergara's. Once a person reaches the 5-year mark, the cancer is more or less cured.

But cancer is not the only reason someone might lose thyroid function. About 1 in every 20 people in the U.S. has hypothyroidism, when the thyroid gland isn't making enough thyroid hormone to meet the body's needs. Because the hormone helps control metabolism, it can affect almost every organ if you don't have enough.

"You start to be very fatigued, and you notice that you're kind of feeling cold when other people are comfortable," says Donald Bodenner, MD, PhD. He is director of the Thyroid Center at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "You can also have constipation, dry skin, weight gain, muscle pain and weakness, thinning hair, memory problems, and depression."

Of course, many of these are what doctors call "nonspecific" symptoms -- they point to a number of other conditions -- making hypothyroidism tough to diagnose. "I see a lot of patients discover hypothyroidism on a blood test and realize they've probably had it for years but attributed it to other things, like just ordinary aging," says Bodenner.

Only about 5% to 10% of cases of hypothyroidism are caused by the surgical removal of the thyroid, says Bodenner. Most are a form of autoimmune disease known as Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Another cause is treatment of hyperthyroidism, when the thyroid makes too much hormone. Either way, it's crucial to get thyroid hormone levels back to normal (usually with a medication).

Although you can't restore lost thyroid function through lifestyle choices like healthy diet and exercise alone, Bodenner notes that many people with hypothyroidism -- especially those who have trouble losing weight -- can benefit from a low-carbohydrate diet rich in vegetables and fruits.

Vergara takes this advice to heart. "This is all stuff that people should be doing anyway if we want to be healthy," she says, although she confesses it's not always easy to practice what she preaches. "I've never been a very big fan of exercising," she says. "In Colombia, I didn't grow up in a culture of working out. But I've accepted it, now that I'm getting older and see things shifting and changing."

Sofia Vergara's Family Life

Speaking of shifts and changes, is Vergara, like her "Modern Family" character, ready for a second child? Could be. She's spoken openly about freezing her eggs so that she and her fiancé, producer Nicholas Loeb, have the chance to have kids together. "When you go through cancer and radiation, and also when you're my age, things don't happen the way they used to happen," she says. "But now with modern medicine and science, we have more opportunity to do things like that. Why not take advantage of it?"

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