Ryan Read, 31, a registered nurse, was watching a marathon day of season one earlier this year when she noticed a lump on El Moussa's neck.
"She didn't want to seem like a crazy fan," says El Moussa's wife and co-host, Christina. "Instead of writing to us, she Googled and found the production company and sent an email saying, 'This is not a joke. I'm a registered nurse. I've been watching Flip or Flop. I noticed that the host Tarek has a large nodule on his thyroid, and he needs to have it checked out.' "
Tarek, 32, knew something was amiss. "I was having a harder time swallowing, and this lump was getting bigger," he tells PEOPLE. "I actually went to the doctor twice for it, and they said it's nothing. So, once I saw [the note from Read], I was like, 'You know what? I need to get a second opinion.' "
An ultrasound initially showed a 5 percent chance of the lump being cancerous. But when the doctors conducted a biopsy on June 12, they realized it was cancer, and the lump had to be removed entirely.
"They said they would remove half of it and be done in an hour," says Tarek. "But it ended up being four hours, it was cancer, and they ended up removing my entire thyroid. … When I woke up, my wife was crying and the first thing I asked was, 'It's cancer, isn't it?' And she said, 'Yeah.' "
Courtesy Christina El Moussa
"It was a nightmare," he says. "They stay in a different bedroom, and I can't stay with my daughter for more than a few minutes at a time. She wanted to hug me and watch TV every night and give kisses, and we couldn't do that."
Last Friday, Tarek did get some good news. "I was told that the cancer didn't spread beyond my neck," he says. "I'm hopeful now. We're filming a bunch of episodes and going on with life as best we can."
Tarek and Christina will discuss their battle with cancer Thursday on an episode of the syndicated talk show The Doctors.
Tarek will find out in the next week if he is cancer free, but he has already learned plenty from the experience. "I've always been very work, work, work," he says. "So, I stepped back and re-evaluated what I wanted, like spending time with my family and all that good stuff."