Sofia Vergara’s Thyroid Cancer Experience Is an Important Reminder for All

"When you’re young and you hear that word ‘cancer,’ your mind goes to so many places but I tried not to panic and I decided to get educated," said the Modern Family star.

During the “Stand Up To Cancer” telethon on Saturday, August 21, host Sofia Vergara opened up about her personal experience with cancer. At 28 years old, the Modern Family actress was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after her doctor felt a lump in her neck during a routine checkup.

“When you’re young and you hear that word ‘cancer,’ your mind goes to so many places, but I tried not to panic, and I decided to get educated,” said Vergara. “I read every book and found out everything I could about it.”

In Canada, thyroid cancer is the number one cancer among people aged 15 to 29, according to Thyroid Cancer Canada. Thyroid cancer is also much more common among women. “There is a female predominance of about 3:1 for the most common type of thyroid cancer, papillary type,” says Dr. Richard Tsang, a radiation oncologist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Papillary thyroid cancer occurs in the cells that produce and store thyroid hormones and in Canada, accounts for more than 80 percent of thyroid cancer cases.

(Related: This Type of Cancer is Hitting Millennials Really Hard

Anyone can get thyroid cancer, but those with a family history of thyroid cancer, who are over age 45 or who have been exposed to external beam radiation, such as getting radiation for another cancer, are at increased risk. In 2020, the Canadian Cancer Society estimated 8,600 Canadians would be diagnosed with thyroid cancer and 230 would die from the disease.

Vergara, who is now 49 and cancer-free, says she was fortunate to have caught it early. This is particularly true since thyroid cancer does not always have obvious symptoms.

“Usually the lump can be subtle in the thyroid cancer, and painless,” says Tsang. Once it starts to grow, symptoms include a lump or swelling in the neck, voice changes, difficulty swallowing, a persistent sore throat or cough, difficulty breathing and pain in the front of the neck.

(Related: The Thyroid Cancer Symptoms I Ignored—But You Shouldn’t)

But catching early signs like these has been complicated due to the ongoing pandemic. Tsang says COVID has caused delays with people getting diagnosed with thyroid cancer as some people haven’t spoken to their doctor at the first sign of symptoms.

COVID has also caused surgeries to be delayed.

“When attended to, the standard treatment (with surgery to remove the thyroid gland, and selective use of radioactive iodine) has a high cure rate,” says Tsang. “Side effects of treatment are quite minimal.”

Vergara’s story serves as a reminder of the importance of staying on top of screenings and doctor appointments. Doctors are urging Canadians to speak with a health care provider about any concerns and, despite pandemic restrictions, avoid delaying regular cancer screenings. Many doctors have conducted a number of virtual care appointments over the phone, which have been successful, says Tsang.

One factor that helped Vergara through her diagnosis and treatment was having the support of her doctors and family. “I learned a lot during that time, not just about thyroid cancer, but I also learned that in times of crisis, we’re better together,” she said.

Next: I Spotted My Own Cancer in the Mirror—and It Saved My Life

Originally Published in Best Health Canada