Making Thyroid Disease Front Page News

It seems unusual if a week goes by and diabetes, heart disease, or breast cancer aren't in the news. But when is the last time thyroid disease was a major news story?

It seems surprising to me that we actually hear so little about thyroid problems in the media, except for the periodic articles women's magazines -- and they usually get it wrong, in criticisms of Oprah Winfrey's controversial thyroid perspective, and in ridiculous comments.

Here we have a condition that affects many millions of people - some experts even suggest that as many as 59 million people have thyroid disease, with the majority not yet diagnosed - and yet, far less common diseases get far more attention.

What's going on?

I have some theories.

1. Thyroid Disease Isn't Sexy

First, as an endocrinologist once told me, "Thyroid disease isn't sexy." She was referring to the fact that, in medicine, the more life and limb are at risk, the more interesting a disease is considered by the medical establishment. Except in rare cases, thyroid disease usually develops slowly, and its symptoms tend to appear over time. Thyroid disease is chronic, long-term, and rarely fatal in the short-term, and in Western countries, doesn't tend to strike children.

2. The Symptoms Aren't Dramatic

Symptoms such as fatigue, sleep problems, weight changes, depression, low sex drive, hair loss, feeling cold or hot, diarrhea or constipation are not exactly the sort of things medical dramas on TV are going to feature.

(Although I will give it to the show "House." Every couple of episodes, curmudgeonly doctor Gregory House included thyroid problems or a particular autoimmune condition on the laundry list of things to rule out in whatever mysterious ailment is being featured.)

But without the urgency of danger to life or limb, or the emotional pull of children at risk, thyroid disease just doesn't have much visibility.

It's not likely that thyroid disease will end up becoming a major cause for celebrities or socialites, or that thyroid disease will be the beneficiary of major walkathons, telethons, or media campaigns.

3. Women Are Mainly Affected

Thyroid disease primarily affects women. You've probably heard the old bromide, "If men had periods, Congress would fund a National Institute of Premenstrual Syndrome." There's some truth in that, however. Women's health concerns have traditionally received far less attention, when compared to health issues that are of more concern to men.

Check out the various federal government health websites, and see if you can even find which institute or division at HHS focuses on thyroid disease. It's nearly impossible. If you do manage to figure it out (it's the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases NIDDK), see if you can find any substantial informational materials on thyroid disease. They're not there. It's the same with funding for thyroid-related research.

In comparison, diabetes, a disease that affects fewer people than thyroid disease, has its own NIH institute, and is the subject of many research grants.

Without a government presence, and few major planned or current studies of thyroid-related issues, we end up with fewer newsworthy developments of interest to doctors, patients, the media, and the general public.

4. The Thyroid Stigma

Thyroid disease suffers from a stigma. An entire generation of people - and practitioners as well - seem to think the term "thyroid disease" is actually code for saying that someone has a weight problem. You see it in sitcoms, and even advertisers like Marriott and Dairy Queen have run advertisements that used couched references to "thyroid problems" to imply - supposedly humorously - that someone was obese.

You even hear comedians make jokes about it. For example, standup comic Emo Philips is known for a bit he did where he said, "I saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt with 'Guess' on it. I said, 'Thyroid problem?'" Some people even think that thyroid problems are a phony excuse for being overweight. It's true that many thyroid patients do gain weight, and struggle with that issue. But I think the media sometimes behave as if thyroid-related weight gain was an infection they're afraid to catch.

5. Celebrities Usually Won't Touch It

When a high-profile celebrity announces that she's battling breast cancer, or has gastric bypass surgery for weight loss, it's often front page news, and the subject of extensive celebrity coverage. But few celebrities seem willing to publicly announce a thyroid condition, much less make it a cause or issue to promote.

For example, Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall, daytime television host Meredith Vieira, and even politician Hillary Clinton are all hypothyroid, and yet we rarely hear anything about their thyroid challenges. Many celebrities undoubtedly have thyroid problems, yet only a few of them have made it publicly known. Again, I blame the stigma associated with thyroid disease for ensuring the celebrity code of silence.

6. The Oprah Effect

I think Oprah Winfrey shares part of the responsibility. For years, Oprah made women's health issues the focus of her programs. She dedicated numerous episodes of her popular and influential television show -- and her O magazine -- to the topics of menopause, low sex drive, weight loss, perimenopause. And yet, time and again, as she and her health experts have listened to women complain of their fatigue, difficulty losing weight, depression, hair loss, and lack of sex drive, thyroid disease was never mentioned! And when she finally admitted that she herself had a thyroid problem, she then quickly backpedaled, claimed she cured it with Hawaiian vacations and soy milk, brought on experts to say that that thyroid disease is due to women's inability to speak out, then said she didn't want to take thyroid medication anyway, and went on Suzanne Somer's controversial hormone regimen. She made it seem like having a thyroid condition is an embarrassment -- something to be ashamed of, to brush away and ignore, and eventually, to even disown. Oprah could have helped millions of women...instead she's made it even more of a stigma.

What Will Change the Situation?

Just as there are no magical cures for thyroid disease, I don't believe there are any magical cures for the lack of attention thyroid disease gets in the press. But what would likely bring thyroid disease into the spotlight?

And what can you do?

Thyroid Disease Is Not Just for "Old People

Let's keep spreading the word that thyroid disease is not a some boring problem that only affects middle-aged women and makes them gain weight. For example:

  • Twenty-somethings: Thyroid disease can cause infertility and make it hard -- or even impossible -- for you to have a baby! 
  • Women under 50 (and the men who love you!): Thyroid disease can explain why you have debilitating PMS.
  • Men: If you've lost your sizzle between the sheets -- or the hair on your head -- it could be your thyroid -- at any age!
  • Baby Boomer women -- Are you  going through perimenopause and menopause and agonizing over whether to take potentially risky hormone treatment to deal with your symptoms? A sizeable number of you could resolve symptoms like fatigue, sleep disruptions, weight changes, depression, and memory problems by getting your thyroid problems properly diagnosed and safely treated. You might never even need other hormone therapies to have a comfortable, healthy menopause!

Make Some Noise in Washington

We need to become more aware of what the government is doing in terms of research. Write to your representatives and ask why more research isn't focused on thyroid disease. Contact the NIH and urge them to to dedicate more efforts to providing information and funding research on thyroid conditions. Here's a handy page online where you can easily find online and regular mail information to write your representatives.

Fight the Stigma!

If you hear an advertisement that disparages thyroid patients, write the advertiser, write the media outlet that ran the ad, and let me know. I'll help publicize it, and we may be able to get the advertiser to change their approach - AND increase awareness while we're at it. If you see someone Twitter that pathetic Emo Phillips joke (and believe me, there's always someone who "rediscovers" this joke and feels it necessary to Twitter it incessantly) and tell them it isn't funny. Tell your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers that you have a thyroid problem, and help educate them, because chances are, some of them have a thyroid condition, but they just don't know it yet.

Don't Go It Alone!

There is strength in numbers. Join with other thyroid patients at my Facebook Thyroid Support page to share your thoughts, ideas, support, and information on how to feel and live well.

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