Sweet Serendipity: Cancer Caught on Television

HealFall 2018
Volume 1
Issue 3

Survivor diagnosed with second cancer after surgeon spots a lump on her throat while watching TV.

MOST PEOPLE HAVE HEARD the adage “Timing is everything.” For Nicole McGuinness, those words have never been truer than they were when a friend told her a surgeon from nearly 500 miles away was looking for her.

Erich Voigt, M.D., director of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York City, was at home and watching the HGTV show “Beachfront Bargain Hunt.” The woman on the show (Nicole) had a lump on her neck that Voigt felt should be checked. Through the power of social media, he found Nicole, who was examined and told that she had thyroid cancer. Unknown to Voigt, she was already a brain cancer survivor.

In an interview with Heal®, Voigt shares how this all unfolded, what it was like to meet Nicole for the first time and how others can potentially help save a life.

Heal®: When most people would have been staring at the homes and beach, you noticed a lump on the homebuyer’s throat. How did you spot it? And what made you feel that it needed urgent attention?

Voigt: I was at home relaxing, watching a show. I like to kind of fantasize about beach homes and oceanfront. Working in the big city, you don’t really see the ocean, so it’s a relaxing time for me. And as I was watching the show, I noticed that the woman had something that wasn’t normal. Because I’m a head and neck surgeon and I train medical students and residents on how to do physical exams and how to notice these things, it just caught my eye. It was a very obvious finding to me.

Then you turned to social media, correct?

I paused on the TV and reviewed it a couple of times. And I thought, “Wow, there is really something there.” I showed a couple of family members who were over, and I rewound the show and fast-forwarded it and was like, “That’s a thyroid mass most likely.” And then I wondered, “Does she even know?” It dawned on me that this was someone who might have a problem and be unaware of it. Then I said, “Gosh, should I try to do something about it?” I thought about the implications of doing so. I went through a little process of should I, shouldn’t I. I felt an obligation to help.

I knew that if I were to put it on social media, I wouldn’t really be revealing anything about her that she hadn’t already put out into the media. She was already on TV, and her name was on the screen, so her identity was already out there. I decided to go to my Facebook page. I took a screenshot of the TV, then wrote, “I think this woman might have a problem. There’s a lump, and she probably needs a sonogram and a biopsy. If anyone knows her, reach out to her and see if we can help her out.”

Within two weeks, a friend of hers, who’d Googled the show, saw my picture (that I posted) come up. I had hashtagged the show, and that’s how she found it. She contacted me through Facebook and said, “I know that person, and I’m going to let her know.” She contacted Nicole, who immediately acted. She didn’t know that she had the lump. By interesting circumstance, the show was filmed in November 2017, and I saw the episode in May 2018, so that lump had been there for six months. She had been going through regular medical checkups, but it was never identified. Once she was notified, she went to her doctor, and the result was thyroid cancer.

Were you surprised that it worked?

I was totally shocked. I mean, chills up and down my spine. Honestly, it was an overwhelming feeling.

When you learned it was thyroid cancer, what went through your head?

To put it into a perspective of what I do every day, I’m always thoroughly examining every patient that I see. I stress this to the medical students. I teach a physical diagnosis course and how to examine the head and neck. We bring the medical students in and teach them how to examine by examining each other. So this is always something that’s in my consciousness. Because I had done it outside the medical professional realm, it confirmed that as a physician, you are always trying to help and do the right thing. I feel really good that it worked out and that, hopefully, when you find something earlier than later, you have a better prognosis.

You recently met Nicole, already a brain cancer survivor, in person. What was that like? And what did she say to you?

Meeting her was very emotional for both of us because it is a unique human experience to help someone like her. I felt very happy to have helped her. She was very grateful and thankful. She is a remarkably strong person. I didn’t even know about the brain cancer diagnosis, so to hear about that and that she fought something and is a survivor and so strong — it’s all just so miraculous to me.

Do you know how Nicole is doing? And do you plan to stay in touch with each other?

She got her care where she lives, in North Carolina, at Duke. She has been in touch about the steps that have been happening and asking me for some advice at times. I’m not her treating doctor, so I am giving her advice like I would give my mom or dad if they were ill. She’s doing well.

How can this story motivate others to keep an eye out?

There is something called a good Samaritan, and there are good Samaritan laws to help protect someone who is in health care (who may) help someone on the street — if someone falls and they get injured or you’re on a flight and they ask for a doctor — and generally health care providers will reach out and help people.

I think everyone has the capacity to help others. If you see something dangerous, if you see something where someone might be in danger, reach out and help. There are great stories all the time about people being heroes and saving others, but sometimes it can be something as simple as being a positive influence.

Additionally, in health care and in my region, in the head and neck, if any individual has a lesion, an ulcer or a sore that’s not going away and lasting more than two to three weeks, they really should get that looked at by their doctor. That also includes any type of swelling or lump or bump that’s in the head and neck region. We all can get swollen lymph nodes from colds and viruses, but those should go down after a week or so. If something persists, then get it checked.

How can patients recognize the signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer?

In general, thyroid cancer (presents) as a painless lump. It’s often found by the individual who might just look in the mirror and see a bump, or for men, they may feel a fullness as they are shaving their neck. More worrisome signs include trouble swallowing, voice changes and hoarseness and pain. Those are more significant findings of something that might be more advanced.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

People should be in tune with their bodies. Be thoughtful that if something is changing, don’t be afraid of it. I know sometimes people will feel a lump and feel anxious about it. They ignore it and then hope it will go away, but sometimes people are ignoring their health issues, and they should go to the doctor. That ranges from a lump or a bump to chest pain. You can save a life — your own or another’s — if you do something sooner rather than later.

To hear more, listen to our CURE Talks Cancer podcast.

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