How Hill Harper Beats Thyroid Cancer

CSI: NY star Hill Harper was dealt a blow when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Here’s how he beat the disease and began dedicating his life to making a difference.

Linda Childers
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Hill Harper will never forget the day three years ago when he was on set in Atlanta, filming the Tyler Perry movie For Colored Girls.

“I woke up and just couldn’t swallow anything,” recalls the actor, perhaps best known for his role as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on CSI: NY and more recently as Calder Michaels on the hit show Covert Affairs. “I just knew I didn’t have a cold or strep throat,” Hill says. “I called a friend who is a doctor in Atlanta and after examining me, he ordered an ultrasound and a biopsy that ultimately revealed I had thyroid cancer.”

Hill was told he needed to have his thyroid surgically removed, which meant taking a synthetic thyroid hormone for the rest of his life. 

With two Harvard graduate degrees (in law and government), a successful acting career and four best-selling books to his name, Hill always knew he had a lot to be thankful for. Yet the 47-year-old actor admits that the diagnosis gave him a newfound appreciation for life.

“We think we have all the time in the world, but a cancer diagnosis definitely makes you take stock of your own mortality,” says Hill, who lost his father, grandfather and uncle to cancer. “Having cancer made me realize how important it is to live the best life you can every day.”

Today, cancer-free and with a clean bill of health, Hill has become a cancer advocate. In 2012, President Barack Obama named Hill to the President’s Cancer Panel, a committee that monitors the development and execution of the activities of the National Cancer Program, and reports directly to the President. “It definitely is an honor,” Hill says.

Here, he shares a few lessons that he learned after his thyroid cancer diagnosis:

Face fear head-on: Ironically, Hill was just starting to work on his fourth book, The Wealth Cure, about the intersection of health and wealth, when he received his cancer diagnosis. He admits that remaining optimistic about his future was a struggle. “Part of staying positive meant constantly reminding myself I’m not my father, uncle or grandfather,” Hill says. “One of my favorite sayings is that FEAR is just an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. My doctors told me that my form of cancer was very treatable, and I also did my own research on thyroid cancer to learn as much as I could about the condition. Knowledge is power. Power over fear.”

Why it’s a good idea: A 2010 study published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology found that lung cancer patients who were optimistic experienced more favorable outcomes than those who were pessimistic. Another study found that optimism helped to reduce pain and fatigue in cancer patients.

Freshen up your diet: Having his thyroid removed left Hill with lasting metabolic issues that he manages by taking daily thyroid medication and watching what he eats. “I’m all about easy access when it comes to meal planning,” Hill says. “There’s a veggie grill restaurant and a salad restaurant near my home that I often go to, and I also like making fresh juices from organic fruits and vegetables. When I’m traveling for work, it becomes more of a challenge, but I try to make healthy choices and to still enjoy the foods I like in moderation.”

Why it’s a good idea: Apigenin, a compound in certain plant-based foods, can help cancer cells die off faster, according to a recent Ohio State University study. Apigenin is mainly found in fruit (including apples, cherries, grapes), vegetables (including parsley, artichokes, basil, celery), nuts and plant-derived beverages (including tea and wine).

Be a proactive patient: Being in tune with his body, Hill knew something was off that morning when he awoke and couldn’t swallow. Today, he encourages others to get regular screenings and to consult a doctor if they experience changes in their health. Hill has also filmed a public service announcement encouraging people to get regular cancer screenings and emphasizing that thyroid cancer, like many cancers, is “treatable and beatable.”

Why it’s a good idea: Early detection is one of the best ways to fend off all cancers, confirms the American Cancer Society. 

January 2014