In June 2013, HGTV star Tarek El Moussa's life changed forever when he received a not-so-ordinary piece of fan mail: a letter urging him to get a biopsy for a suspicious-looking lump on his neck. Now two and a half years later, the Flip or Flop host is in remission and feeling good after a lengthy battle with thyroid cancer.
"I feel good, but I don't have the energy I used to have," El Moussa, 34, told People in a new interview. "The only thing is most days or like half the time I feel a little jet-lagged. I'm really tired."
The real estate agent first learned of his diagnosis after a fan (who also happened to be a registered nurse) penned the life-saving letter to the show's producers. She noticed the lump while watching a marathon.
The warning letter made complete sense, El Moussa explained to People in September 2013, given that he was having a hard time swallowing at the time and also noticed himself that the lump was getting bigger. "I actually went to the doctor twice for it, and they said it's nothing," he told the magazine. "So, once I saw [the note from the fan], I was like, 'You know what? I need to get a second opinion.'"
El Moussa's initial ultrasound showed there was only a 5 percent chance of the lump being cancerous. Then on June 12, 2013, he underwent a biopsy that showed the lump was in fact malignant, and it had to be removed entirely.
But that wasn't the end of the family's battle: The cancer had spread to El Moussa's lymph nodes, requiring him to undergo radioactive iodine therapy, a common treatment for this type of cancer.
Because the thyroid gland absorbs iodine, when the radioactive form is taken orally it collects in thyroid cells (both cancerous and not) and destroys them. It's an effective treatment and has fewer side effects than say, chemotherapy, but the patient often has to be isolated afterward to prevent others from being exposed to the radiation.
El Moussa described the agonizing separation from his wife, Christina (who is also his Flip or Flop co-host), and daughter, Taylor. "It was a nightmare," he told People in 2013. "They stay in a different bedroom, and I can't stay with my daughter for more than a few minutes at a time. She wanted to hug me and watch TV every night and give kisses, and we couldn't do that."
Today, though, the family's future looks brighter than ever. The couple welcomed a baby boy, Brayden James, this past September. "There is always that chance of reccurrence, but every year that goes by the odds of reccurrence goes down, so it's good," El Moussa said. "I have slowed down quite a bit. Which is actually a good thing because I can actually relax now."
Thyroid cancer has become discussed more and more, in part due to the powers of television and Hollywood. Stars including Brooke Burke-Charvet and Sophia Vergara have also battled the disease. (It's three times as common in women than men.)
But the thyroid—a hormonal gland in the neck that helps regulate bodily functions, including your metabolism and heartbeat—remains a mystery to many, and the symptoms of the cancer are typically subtle, or even non-existent in many cases. Most of the time, the only sign is noticing a small lump, or nodule, on the neck. A larger nodule, however, can put added pressure on the esophagus and cause difficulty swallowing or shortness of breath.
It's also important to note that a lump doesn't always signal cancer. About half of adults will have a nodule on the thyroid, but only about 5 percent are malignant.
The good news: Thyroid cancer is almost always treatable, although there are some forms that are more aggressive. The 10-year survival rate for patients with papillary thyroid cancer, the most common type, is 95%. The prognosis is even better for individuals under 40 or for those with smaller tumors.