“At 28, ‘cancer’ was not a word I expected to hear,” Sofia Vergara, 49, wrote of her doctor’s appointment when she first learned she had thyroid cancer. “It was just a routine checkup. But the doctors found a lump in my throat and that word became part of my story.”
After his diagnosis, Vergara began a long process of cancer treatment. “I spent countless hours undergoing radiation treatments and eventually surgery,” she wrote. “Today, I can call myself a cancer survivor.”
In the photo, Sofia Vergara has a scar over her thyroid, the small butterfly-shaped hormone-producing gland on the lower front of her neck. “This was my first acting class after diagnosis and treatment,” Vergara explained in the caption, “and seeing the scar on my throat reminds me how blessed I felt that day, and every day since.”
Vergara said that she feels “lucky and grateful to be able to share my story and remind you that: “Early prevention is very important!” The Modern Family star urged people to keep up with their routine medical appointments. “Schedule your annual checkup for this year if you haven’t already,” she wrote.
Doctors don’t understand what causes most cases of thyroid cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic, so they don’t know what people at average risk can do to prevent or reduce their risk of getting the disease. (For people at higher-than-average risk, due to certain inherited genetic mutations or who live in close proximity to a nuclear power plant, surgery or preventive medications may be an option, according to the Mayo Clinic.)
However, doctors have gotten better at finding thyroid cancer early. Today, most cases are detected earlier than historically, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), and can be successfully treated.Signs and symptoms are uncommon in the early stages of thyroid cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic, but as the tumor grows, it can cause swelling or a nodule (lump) in the gland. Most cases of thyroid cancer that are caught early are found when a person feels or sees a nodule and makes an appointment with their doctor to have it checked out, says the ACS.
Other potential signs and symptoms that warrant a visit to the doctor include pain in the front of the neck, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and a persistent cough that is not related to an illness. (Most thyroid lumps are benign, and all of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions. So it’s important to get it checked out so your doctor can perform a physical exam, review your medical history, and possibly order diagnostic tests, such as an imaging test or a biopsy, if they suspect cancer, the ACS explains).
In addition, there is no recommended routine screening for early thyroid cancer for people at average risk, according to the ACS. (For people at higher risk, such as those with a family history of the disease, blood tests and ultrasounds can detect changes in thyroid function or structure to help detect cancer.) But the disease can sometimes be detected during a routine checkup, according to the ACS, before a person notices any signs or symptoms.
This was the case with Sofía Vergara, for example, who told Health in 2011 that her cancer was found during an appointment with the endocrinologist for her son. “While we were there, the doctor also wanted to check me out and found a lump on my neck,” she said. “I didn’t feel any symptoms.”
There are a variety of treatment options for thyroid cancer. The best course depends on factors such as the size, location, and stage of the cancer, as well as the person’s general health. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people have surgery to remove their thyroid gland (or a part of it), as Vergara did. It is also common for people to receive additional treatments after the operation, such as radioactive iodine treatment (which was done by Sofía Vergara) to help prevent any remaining thyroid problems or cancer.