When it comes to raising awareness, television personalities have a platform that allows them to reach millions. Take Katie Couric, for example. After she underwent a colonoscopy live on national television in March 2000, colonoscopy rates nationwide jumped more than 20 percent. She is just one of the many celebrities who have prompted viewers to take action regarding their health.
However, HGTV host Tarek El Moussa’s story is a complete reversal. That’s right. A viewer spurred his visit to the doctor. Being a television star certainly has its perks, but for Tarek, it may have been lifesaving.
The Email More than 20 million people have tuned in to HGTV’s Flip or Flop, which follows the husband-and-wife real estate team of Tarek and Christina El Moussa as they flip houses in Orange County, CA. Of those fans, one particularly alert viewer, registered nurse Ryan Read, noticed a troubling lump on Tarek’s neck while she was watching a television marathon of the show. Concerned, she emailed the show’s production company urging him to have his thyroid checked.
Her words of concern hit Tarek hard, as they served to confirm a two-year suspicion that something was off with his health.
“I had a bad feeling when I received that email,” Tarek admits to Coping. “For two years, I had been experiencing tightness in my neck, and I was constantly clearing my throat. I had gone to my doctor twice and was told it was nothing, just allergies. After I read her email, I went to the doctor – a new doctor – the next day and insisted on further testing.”
Treatment & Side Effects Tarek’s initial ultrasound results were inconclusive, as is common with thyroid cancer, but the decision was made to remove the lobe housing the lump, just in case it was cancerous. It would be a simple one-hour procedure.
Four hours later, Tarek awoke from surgery with his thyroid completely removed and doctors telling him he had thyroid cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes. He would need radioactive iodine therapy to destroy the cancerous cells remaining in his body. And because his body would give off radiation for some time afterward, Tarek had to be isolated from his wife, as well as their three-year-old daughter, Taylor, to protect them from radiation exposure. In total, he spent more than two weeks away from home, and when he returned, he had to limit the time he spent with his family.
“It was a very lonely time for me,” Tarek admits. “The hardest part through this entire process was being away from my wife and daughter.”
Another struggle Tarek faced was constant fatigue. In fact, more than two years later, it’s a battle he still fights today.
“I have lost a lot of energy. I’m very tired all the time,” Tarek reveals. “Every day is a struggle because I feel jetlagged. But that doesn’t prevent me from doing what I need to do; it just makes it more difficult.”
Despite the cancer diagnosis, the difficult treatment, and the lasting side effects, Tarek has tried to keep his life as close to normal as possible. “I did not want cancer to ruin my life,” he asserts, adding that he filmed up until the day of his surgery and started filming again as soon as he got his voice back.
On Getting a Second Opinion: Advice from Tarek
Because I went to my primary care doctor twice about the tightness in my neck and was dismissed, I would not have gone a third time. If that viewer had not reached out to me, I would have never done further testing. My advice to others is this: If you feel something is wrong, talk to as many medical professionals as you can. It’s better to get opinions from five doctors rather than one who could make a mistake. Ultimately, you know your body. Trust your gut.
Finally, Some Good News Tarek’s cancer diagnosis came at a time when he and Christina were trying to have a baby. Doctors told the couple that the radioactive iodine needed to eradicate Tarek’s cancer could affect his fertility, so they made the decision to bank his sperm before he began treatment. Christina would later undergo in vitro fertilization – which she admits was a difficult process. After two failed attempts at IVF, the El Moussas joyfully welcomed their second child, a baby boy named Brayden James, into the family on August 20, 2015.
“The number-one thing I have always wanted in my life is a family,” Tarek says. “I am lucky to have accomplished that, even with cancer trying to get in the way.”
Looking to the Future Over the past two years, this now family of four has braved a cancer diagnosis and treatment, endured difficulties with IVF, and finally welcomed a long-awaited second child into the family. Christina tells Coping, “Our life has changed a lot, but all for the better. I love my family and the life we have created. We’ve been through a lot, but it’s brought us even closer together.”
Tarek echoes that sentiment, stating, “Christina is my rock and was by my side and supportive throughout the entire process. When dealing with cancer, you must have a strong support team.”
A cancer diagnosis can bring uneasiness, uncertainty, and fear, but it also can give rise to a new appreciation for life, or even offer up a new perspective. Tarek explains that he is now cancer-free and that, with every day that passes, the odds of recurrence drops. He also says that his diagnosis has given him a new, healthier outlook on life.
“I used to think I was invincible, that nothing could happen to me,” Tarek says. “Well, it turns out cancer can affect anyone; it doesn’t matter who you are. Since my diagnosis, I have changed my lifestyle to a healthier one. Sometimes I think that cancer turned my life around.”
Christina, for one, is thrilled about this new change. “I was always super health-conscious,” she says, “but now Tarek is too, which means we are more on the same page with our lifestyle.”
The El Moussas are excited for the future. They say they’re looking forward to raising their two children and continuing to film new episodes of Flip or Flop. However, they admit they are taking things a bit slower than they were before Tarek’s diagnosis. But Christina is quick to point out that slower doesn’t mean uninteresting.
“Who knows what the future holds for us,” she says, “but in our life there is never a dull moment, so I’m sureit won’t be boring!”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February, 2016.