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How Lucia Stafford deals with Graves’ disease

Stafford had a difficult 2018, but after treating her thyroid condition, she's back and better than ever

Lucia Stafford won the 2019 OUA Cross-Country Championships on Saturday–her first OUA cross-country title. Stafford was one of the most dominant junior runners Canada has ever seen. The now 21-year-old was a Pan Am gold medallist, ran the second-fastest 1,500m by a Canadian junior, set national records and won many U Sports medals and championship titles.

Lucia Stafford
Photo: Martin Bazyl

But in 2018, the runner was relatively absent from the scene, and when she was racing, her performances weren’t as strong as in previous years. Some thought she was just having a year where she plateaued, not uncommon for someone who’s been so dominant for so long (she did run a 4:09 1,500m as a 19-year-old, after all.) But Stafford wasn’t having an off year. She was undergoing treatment for Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid.

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The runner was first diagnosed with the condition in grade 10, when she was 15. She found solutions to manage it through medication and regularly having her thyroid levels tested, but she says it would flare up every year, and usually at inopportune times. “After I was diagnosed and went on medication in grade 10, my levels stabilized and my symptoms went away. But things got rough again in grade 11–symptoms started to return annually.” Stafford says that hyperthyroidism is particularly dangerous for runners, because it predisposes you to an elevated heartrate. “The symptoms are weight loss, anxiety, an elevated heart rate, asthma attacks and fatigue. I couldn’t finish workouts or hit prescribed paces. I felt terrible.”

Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Stafford traveled to Europe to race a summer season in July 2018, but her performances derailed due to her unstable thyroid levels. She decided that fall, after five years of trying to maintain her levels naturally, that she would have the gland partially eradicated. “My dad wanted me to wait a while and get several opinions, because it’s a pretty serious procedure. In the fall of 2018 Terry [her coach] and I went to the doctor and decided that we would do it then instead of waiting until after this Olympic cycle was over.”

Stafford has big goals. She’s the ideal combination of hard working and talented, and she’d like to make it to the Olympic stage, just like her older sister, six-time Canadian record-holder Gabriela DeBues-Stafford. In order to have a chance, she knew the thyroid had to go.

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Removing a thyroid

Stafford says that “removal” is a misnomer, because after the procedure is over, your thyroid isn’t actually gone, it’s just semi-functioning. She now has an underactive thyroid that she takes medication to regulate. Stafford swallowed a radioactive iodine pill in November 2018 to shrink her thyroid gland. “Two weeks before I had to go on a special diet and go off my medication to make sure I was hyperthyroid when I took the pill.” The diet was iodine-free, meaning no cow’s milk. And Stafford loves milk.

She explains that after swallowing the pill, she had to be in isolation for the weekend with no physical contact, because she was literally radioactive. “This pill is no joke. I set off the alarm in airport security one month later when I was flying to Florida.” After six months, the pill had shrunk Stafford’s thyroid to the desired size and she could then begin to figure out what level of medication she would need going forward.

Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

During this trial and error period with her new thyroid and experimental doses of medication, training was hard, but no longer dangerous. “I spent a lot of time with an underactive thyroid during this period. I gained a lot of weight and I was pretty tired all the time, but at least it wasn’t dangerous for me to exercise, like when my thyroid was overactive.”

By August, Stafford had reached a level of medication that was appropriate for her newly shrunk thyroid gland and was feeling like herself again. It was a process that took just shy of a year, but she’s happy she did it. “It actually turned out to be a nice break from competition. I have to take a hormone tablet every day for the rest of my life, but my body is much more predictable than before. There shouldn’t be any surprises now.”

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If Stafford’s performance over the weekend is any indication, she’s in for a good 2019 and 2020. She beat both MacDougall sisters, who are Canadian cross-country powerhouses, and came away with a confidence-boosting win. While 2018-2019 was a difficult 12 months for Stafford, she’s finding her rhythm again and getting back into the swing of things just in time for an Olympic year.