What is Thyroid Cancer?

Most thyroid cancers start in the thyroid gland, which is located in the front of your neck, just above your voice box. Your thyroid gland makes hormones, which your body uses to regulate your body’s metabolism.

Thyroid cancers are generally slow-growing. About 90% of thyroid cancers are adenocarcinomas, which means the cancer starts in cells lining the thyroid gland.

Thyroid cancers are also called thyroid carcinomas. If you have thyroid cancer, your cancer is called a thyroid carcinoma.

What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer?

Symptoms of thyroid cancer often don’t appear until the cancer has spread beyond the thyroid gland and into nearby tissues. Symptoms of thyroid cancer depend on the size of the tumor and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.

  • Swelling of the neck, which can cause a lump in your neck
  • Pain or soreness in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing due to swelling
  • Lump in the neck
  • Voice changes
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained swelling in the neck
  • Hand tremors
  • Swelling in the fingers or hands
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling tired, weak, or weakly
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Hoarseness or a dry cough
  • Pain in the ear
  • Pain in the jaw
  • Unexplained pain in the jaw or neck
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers or hands
  • Numbness or tingling in the face or tongue
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Trouble sleeping

What are the risk factors for thyroid cancer?

Risk factors for thyroid cancers include:

  • Being older than 45 years
  • Having a family history of thyroid cancer
  • Having a history of radiation exposure
  • Having a history of thyroid disease, such as Graves’ disease
  • Having an autoimmune disorder, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Having a history of being overweight or obese
  • Having had thyroid surgery
  • Having had radiation therapy to the head or neck
  • Having had radiation therapy to the chest
  • Having certain diseases, such as multiple myeloma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or lymphoma
  • Having certain genetic syndromes, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome or neurofibromatosis type 1

How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and past health. You will also have a physical exam and a blood test.

If thyroid cancer is suspected, you may have other tests.

  • Ultrasound test. An ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of the inside of your body. The test can help your provider see if the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes.
  • Fine needle aspiration biopsy. In this test, your provider will use a thin needle to take a sample of cells from the thyroid gland. These cells will be looked at under a microscope.
  • Thyroid scan. A radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) scan can help your provider see if the cancer has reached your neck and if the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other parts of your body. In this test, you will swallow a small amount of radioactive material. The radioactive material collects in the thyroid gland.

How is thyroid cancer treated?

Treatment will depend on your age, overall health, and the stage of the cancer. It will also depend on how extensive the cancer is and if it has spread to other parts of your body.

Treatment options for thyroid cancer include:

Surgery

Surgery is the first treatment for thyroid cancer. If your cancer is small and not widespread, your surgeon may be able to remove it through a minimally invasive procedure called a thyroid lobectomy. This kind of surgery involves only a small incision in the side of your neck. This procedure can also be done using a traditional open neck approach.

If the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes, you may need to have your lymph nodes removed along with the thyroid gland. Surgery may also be done to remove your vocal cords.

Radioactive iodine treatment

Radioactive iodine treatment (RAIU) is used to treat thyroid cancers that are small and not widespread. RAIU involves taking a large amount of an iodine-based radioactive material. The radioactive material collects in your thyroid gland. The radioactive material helps your provider find the tumor and determine whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cells.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that changes the way cancer cells grow or divide. Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to attack and destroy cancer cells without harming normal cells.

What is the long-term outlook for people with thyroid cancer?

Most thyroid cancers are slow-growing and rarely spread. But some thyroid cancers can grow and spread quickly. This is why it’s important to follow up with your provider to make sure that any cancer that does spread isn’t caught early.

If you have thyroid cancer, keep an eye out for any new symptoms and tell your provider if you notice any changes.

How can I prevent thyroid cancer?

You can lower your risk of getting thyroid cancer by making good lifestyle choices.

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Don’t use certain medications.

Summary

  • Thyroid cancers are slow-growing.
  • Most thyroid cancers are adenocarcinomas, which means the cancer starts in cells lining the thyroid gland.

Images by Freepik

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