Thyroid cancer occurs when tumors, or nodules, grow in the thyroid gland. The majority of nodules, around 90 percent, are benign (noncancerous), but those that are cancerous can spread throughout the body and be life-threatening.
Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer
One of the reasons thyroid cancer goes undetected is because of the lack of thyroid cancer symptoms. In its early stages, most patients experience no symptoms of thyroid cancer. As it progresses, patients may experience:
- Neck or throat pain
- Problems swallowing
- Lumps felt through the skin on the neck
- Changes to the voice
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
If you experience any of these thyroid cancer symptoms, talk to your doctor right away.
Causes and Risk Factors for Thyroid Cancer
No specific cause of thyroid cancer has been found. Some people are at higher risk for the disease, but no particular cause has been determined. Risk factors include:
- Radiation treatments to the head, neck or chest, particularly when the patient is a child
- Family history of thyroid cancer
- A large or rapidly growing nodule
- Older than age 40
If you have a risk factor, it does not mean that you will get thyroid cancer, and some people can develop the condition with no risk factors. If you have a nodule and any of these risk factors, you should be further evaluated.
Types of Thyroid Cancer
Thyroid cancer can be one of the following types:
- Papillary – The most common type, papillary thyroid cancer affects 8 out of 10 thyroid cancer patients. It grows slowly and spreads to the lymph nodes, but rarely to the bones or lungs.
- Follicular – The second most common type, affecting between 10 and 15 percent of thyroid cancer patients, follicular thyroid cancer rarely spreads to the lymph nodes but can spread to the bones or lungs.
- Medullary – Far less common, medullary thyroid cancer can spread throughout the body. It often runs in families.
- Anaplastic – The least common form, anaplastic thyroid cancer is also the most aggressive form, and typically affects those over age 65.
Diagnosis of Thyroid Cancer
Because there are so few symptoms of thyroid cancer, the disease is usually diagnosed after a patient or doctor finds a nodule on the thyroid. The nodule is tested with fine-needle aspiration, which determines if the nodule is cancer and what type it is.
Treating Thyroid Cancer
Treatment options for thyroid cancer include:
- Surgery – Removing all or part of the thyroid gland and any affected lymph nodes can effectively treat thyroid cancer, but requires a lifetime of thyroid hormone medication.
- Radioactive Iodine Therapy – Swallowing radioactive iodine to destroy the thyroid without surgery.
- External Radiation – Targeting cancer cells and tumors with radiation directed at the gland from outside the body.
- Chemotherapy – The use of drugs to kill cancer cells, usually not used for thyroid cancer when other treatments are possible.
If you think you have a thyroid nodule, see an endocrinologist (a hormone specialist) for diagnosis and treatment.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What kind of thyroid cancer do I have?
- What treatment do I need for it?
- What are the risks and benefits of each of my treatment options?
- What else can I do to stay healthy?
- Should I see an endocrinologist?