What is thyroid cancer?
The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland is located at the front of the neck. It makes hormones responsible for metabolism and brain function, as well as a number of other bodily functions. Thyroid cancer is the most common endocrine system cancer and occurs when cancerous tumors or nodules grow in the thyroid gland. It is the fastest growing cancer in the United States, in both men and women, with over 62,000 new cases diagnosed every year. Because of the increased number of thyroid cancer cases in the United States, knowing the signs and symptoms is important as you seek to protect your health.
What are common causes of thyroid cancer?
Thyroid cancer occurs when thyroid nodules become cancerous. Many people have nodules on the thyroid, and over 90% of those nodules are not cancerous. However, when they are cancerous, they need to be treated to protect thyroid function and prevent the cancer from spreading.
What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer?
Unfortunately, many cases of thyroid cancer do not have any symptoms. The most common thyroid cancer symptom people notice is a lump or swelling in the neck. Difficulty swallowing, neck or throat pain, or a chronically hoarse voice are also symptoms of the disease. Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, or chronic neck and throat pain can point to thyroid cancer as well. If your doctor finds a lump or nodule in your thyroid gland, it will be monitored for signs of growth. Your doctor may also order a biopsy to rule out cancer.
What puts a person at risk for developing thyroid cancer?
While anyone can develop thyroid cancer, certain factors put an individual at higher risk. These factors include:
- Being between ages 25 and 65
- Being female
- Being Caucasian
- Having a family member who has had thyroid disease
- Having had exposure to radiation, especially as a child. The radiation exposure could come from exposure to a nuclear reactor accident (such as Chernobyl or Fukashima) or from radiation treatments for another cancer. Survivors of childhood cancer who were treated with high dose radiation have the greatest risk of thyroid cancer from radiation.
Thyroid cancer risk is approximately three times higher in women than men, and most cases occur in patients under age 55.
What are the different types of thyroid cancers?
- Papillary: the most common (80% of cases); slow growing; may develop in one or both lobes of the thyroid gland; and may spread to lymph nodes in the neck.
- Follicular: the 2nd most common; found more in countries with lack of iodine; grows slowly and is highly treatable.
- Medullary: less common; more likely to run in families; more likely to spread to lymph nodes and other organs.
- Anaplastic: very rare and very aggressive; quickly spreads to other parts of the neck and body
What are the treatments for thyroid cancer?
If you suspect that you have thyroid cancer, be sure to talk to your doctor about the right testing. If your doctor confirms the presence of cancerous nodules in the thyroid, you will likely need to have your thyroid gland removed. If the thyroid cancer is contained within the gland, this may be the only treatment needed. However, some doctors will offer a one-time radioactive iodine pill as part of their thyroid cancer treatment protocol. Advanced cancers, which are found in fewer than 5% of patients, may require chemotherapy. Because the thyroid gland is removed during treatment, you will need to be on thyroid hormone therapy for the rest of your life.
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?