Surviving Thyroid Cancer: Sofia Vergara's Story

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

From the WebMD Archives

Is Sofia Vergara the world's funniest sexy woman, or the world's sexiest funny woman?

Whichever way you put it, there's been a lot more laughter in American living rooms since the Colombian-born Vergara, 41, made the jump from hosting variety shows on the Spanish-language network Univision to starring as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett in ABC's Emmy-dominating comedy Modern Family.

She's now the face of CoverGirl cosmetics, the highest-earning woman on television, and recently one of the latest celebs to be rebuilt in wax at Madame Tussauds (in both New York City and Las Vegas). And she tops virtually every public and private list of "sexiest woman ever!" But Vergara hasn't always led such a charmed life.

Health Scare

After falling into an early marriage at age 18 and divorcing 2 years later, Vergara moved to Miami with her young son, Manolo, to pursue a job in TV hosting. She was 28 when a routine doctor's checkup found something unexpected. "He felt a lump in my neck," she recalls.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of tests that confirmed her doctor's suspicions: Vergara had thyroid cancer. "It was very traumatic," she says. "I was young. I had a young son. But I tried not to panic. I decided to take charge and inform myself. Of course, I couldn't Google thyroid cancer from the comfort of my house back then, so I went to bookstores and found out everything I could about it."

She learned she'd have to undergo surgery to remove her thyroid gland, the small butterfly-shaped organ at the base of the neck that makes a hormone that helps control many of the body's functions, including temperature, heart rate, how calories and vitamins are used, and more. After that, Vergara spent several days in the hospital, in isolation, while she received treatment with radioactive iodine that would wipe out any remaining cancer cells. "Not even the nurses could come close," she recalls. "They practically throw you your food through a hole in the door," she adds, exaggerating a bit.

Still, she says, "I was lucky that's all I needed. That kind of cancer is very quiet, and usually you only realize you have it after it's already spread and it's much harder to treat."

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'Follow the Script'

Nearly 13 years later, Vergara remains cancer-free, but she has a daily reminder in the form of a small lavender pill she takes each morning to make up for the loss of her thyroid.

"I have to take it without any food, and then I sit there counting the minutes for half an hour until I can have my coffee!" she laughs. "I get my blood levels checked every 3 to 6 months to make sure my thyroid levels are good. And of course after cancer, every time I cough or feel something I'm a little paranoid. But I want people to know you can live a normal life with hypothyroidism."

That's why she's currently the face of "Follow the Script," a campaign designed to help people with hypothyroidism work with their doctor to manage their thyroid hormone levels, find the right dose of medication, keep track of symptoms, and lead a healthy lifestyle.

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.

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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?"

In the meantime, she's reveling in her white-hot career. "Modern Family" starts its fifth season in the fall, and she has two couldn't-be-more-different films coming out soon: director John Turturro's comedy Fading Gigolo, with Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, and Liev Schreiber, and Machete Kills, with Mel Gibson, Jessica Alba, and Michelle Rodriguez. She also has a new line of "shapewear for soccer moms," available at Kmart stores.

Finding herself in comedy was a happy accident, Vergara says. "When I decided to be an actress, I didn't know that's what I'd be doing. But I started to get cast in comedies and began to realize that was the direction I was supposed to go in." Ultimately, she'd like to see herself with a long acting career like that of another iconic star with a similar name: Sophia Loren. "She's had an amazing career internationally and is still beautiful and active today," Vergara says. "She had a loving family and a marriage of decades. I think that's amazing, to be able to juggle all that."

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Talking to Kids About Cancer

Vergara says one of the hardest things about being diagnosed with cancer was telling her young son, Manolo. "I tried not to panic in front of him," she says. "Of course, I told him that I had to go to the doctor and have an operation, but I didn't want it to be very dramatic. I explained that I was going to try and take care of it, but what can an 8-year-old kid do?"

Vergara was right to be open with her son, says Jen Singer, a New Jersey writer who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007, when her sons were 8 and 10. She's created the web site parentingwithcancer.com as a resource for parents like herself and Vergara.

Nearly 3 million children in the U.S. are living with a parent who has cancer or has survived cancer -- and half a million of them are witnessing the earliest and most intense stage of their mom's or dad's treatment.

"When kids are old enough to understand what cancer means -- probably around 8 or so -- you need to use that word and explain there are different types of cancer," Singer says. "If your particular cancer is curable, say that. If it's highly treatable, say that. Put it as positively as possible."

What else does your child need to know?

You can't catch it. "When you tell a child you're sick, they think of things like colds, and they worry it could happen to them, too," Singer says.

You didn't cause it. "Kids have magical thinking," says Singer. "They believe they can make things happen with their thoughts. You need to reassure them that this didn't happen because they had a bad thought about you."

Your life isn't going to be turned upside down. Let your children know they will still go to school and soccer practice and so forth as usual -- but maybe Grandma or the neighbor will take them sometimes instead of Mom or Dad. "Keeping the schedule as much like before as possible is key to your child feeling safe," Singer explains.

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Here's what might happen. Tell your child ahead of time about side effects like hair loss or nausea. "If your hair's going to fall out, that is probably above and beyond the most important thing for them to know," says Singer, who gave a presentation to her son's fourth-grade class while wearing a headscarf.

Above all, she says, resist the temptation to shield your children from what's happening. "Kids of all ages can sense when something is not quite right. They will fill in the blanks with something that's far worse than the truth."

Sofia Vergara's Health Tips

And how does this talented actress take care of her own mind and body? Here are her pointers.

Take charge of your health. "When I was diagnosed, I was really ignorant about what thyroid cancer meant and what living without a thyroid would be like," she says. She hit the books and learned everything she could about living the rest of her life with hypothyroidism. No matter what your health situation is, knowledge is power, she says.

Don't miss your checkups. "Your body changes as your life changes," Vergara says. "Check in with your doctor and make sure everything's OK." For women, thyroid problems -- underactive or overactive -- often crop up after menopause or pregnancy, so those are key times to get checked, she notes.

Get outside motivation. Have trouble getting off the couch and into the gym? Make an appointment with a trainer, or a friend who won't let you bail. "If I'm alone, I sabotage myself," Vergara says. "Instead of doing 10 reps, I do seven. If I have somebody there telling me what to do, I do it."

Treat yourself -- in moderation. She's a well-known sweets fan. "Right now in my purse I have Swedish fish and some candy that I bought in China when I was there recently. I cherish them because I know I'm going to run out soon!" she says. "Sometimes I'll even suck on a sugar cube. But I don't eat desserts every single day, and I eat lots of fruits and vegetables."

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Make time for yourself. "I don't get very many days to myself," Vergara admits. "But I try to make sure I find time to have lunches with my girlfriends and go shopping -- do the simple things that girls like to do."

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine."

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 01, 2013

Sources

SOURCES:

Sofia Vergara, actress.

American Cancer Society: "Radioactive iodine (radioiodine) therapy for thyroid cancer."

American Cancer Society: "What are the key statistics about thyroid cancer?"

American Cancer Society: "Thyroid cancer: early detection, diagnosis and staging."

National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service: "Hypothyroidism."

Donald Bodenner, MD, PhD, director of the Thyroid Center at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, Ark.

Weaver, K.E. Cancer, Sept. 15, 2010.

Jen Singer, founder, Parentingwithcancer.com.

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