Doug Plaut is a New York-based actor. You may have seen him in some of his high-profile roles on the Emmy-nominated hit Netflix show, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and in the film “Hurricane Bianca: From Russia With Hate.”
Doug, who was diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer at the age of 16, now keeps up a busy New York-style schedule of auditions and acting jobs. We had an opportunity to learn more about Doug’s experience with thyroid cancer in an email interview, and how being a thyroid cancer survivor has affected Doug’s life and career.
HealthCentral (HC): What was the process of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer like for you?
Doug Plaut: I grew up as a kid with a disability. (I was born with mild cerebral palsy, nearly fully-functioning, but with a slightly mired gait that I've worked to fix as much as possible.) My parents, Reagan Republicans, were probably uncomfortable having a son as eccentric and odd as I was...and am. At around age 14, I started having problems breathing, but it was written off as my being dramatic.
Eventually, my breathing issues got worse. I was taken first to a psychiatrist...I had been taken to the psychiatrist off and on for many years, with no diagnosis. Other doctors then prescribed various drugs, but they didn’t help.
After the breathing problems became much worse, the lump in my neck was finally found. I'd had a particularly rough time at school the day it was found, so the doctor even thought my symptoms might be related to stress. They waited and watched the lump, but when it didn't go down or disappear, I had a biopsy and I learned I had thyroid cancer.
HC: What emotions did you go through when you learned you had thyroid cancer?
Doug: I was a little scared, but to be honest, I also felt triumphant that I wasn't crazy. As many thyroid patients will tell you, when enough people tell you that you are crazy, you sometimes start to believe it yourself!
HC: What were your biggest frustrations or challenges when you were diagnosed, and currently?
Doug: At the time I was diagnosed, I'd always wanted to go to school for musical theater. I had a pretty good voice, and 11 hours of neck surgery partially paralyzed my vocal cord. I had to learn to speak again.
My biggest challenge now is managing my energy and remembering that how you feel has to “drive the boat” when you check in with physicians and endocrinologists. Secondary to the radiation I had, I am also at a higher risk for some other types of cancer, but knock wood, I am very healthy today.
HC: How has having a thyroid condition affected your work as an actor?
Doug: I think it has both helped and hurt.
I don't think I'd be a very good actor if I hadn’t been through the thyroid cancer and recuperation.
When I couldn't speak for a year — thank you to the incredible Linda Carroll, the best injured-voice pathologist in the world, for rehabbing me — I had to really use that time to learn about acting that didn't involve voice training. I also started exercising every day and eating a pretty meticulous diet. During that time, my physical gait from the cerebral palsy also improved.
Going though thyroid cancer also cultivated my empathy as a human. It taught me to truly listen. In the interest of honesty, I can be a talky gasbag, and I had to learn to be quiet. I had no choice. And that made me a better actor.
The biggest challenge has been managing perceptions about illness. Kathleen Turner once said she hid her rheumatoid arthritis for so long because “people don't hire people who are sick.” I was terrified of being open about it for so long.
But I think part of growing up is just saying: “Hey, this is reality. I can handle it myself, but this is what’s going on in case you have questions.” It doesn't affect my ability to work at all. Now, when people ask me about it in a work environment, I welcome it.
HC: What advice to you have to others who are struggling to live well with thyroid disease?
Doug: Know that how you feel physically has to drive the boat and be gentle and patient with yourself.
Also, know that thyroid disease is manageable, but often, the numbers don't match how you feel. Seek an endocrinologist with big ears, one who looks up from the lab results and numbers and who will dig deeper. Dr. Beatriz Olson is my endocrinologist and she is wonderful. I go 90 miles each way to see her once a year.
I'm so lucky I found that, and I'm living well today!
You can learn more about Doug Plaut on the web at http://www.dougplaut.com.