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What is Thyroid Cancer?

Cancer Care

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland that normally lives in the neck. This gland produces hormones that regulate normal metabolism in the human body. Cancers that originate from the thyroid gland are called “thyroid cancer.” 

One of the fastest growing cancers

Thyroid cancer affects nearly 54,000 Americans each year. The frequency with which thyroid cancers are diagnosed is quickly rising in the U.S. In fact, thyroid cancers are one of the cancer types with the fastest increase in its incidence. While there are many different varieties of thyroid cancer, most thyroid cancers can be treated successfully.

The Methodist Head and Neck Surgical Oncology Clinic specializes in treating many different cancers of the head and neck, including thyroid cancers. The specialists at Methodist have seen a sharp rise in the number of patients diagnosed with cancerous and benign (non-cancerous) nodules of the thyroid gland.

So what do you need to know?

Risk factors for thyroid cancer

There are several risk factors that may be associated with risk of developing thyroid cancer. However, many of these risk factors are not modifiable. Additionally, not all patients with these risk factors will develop thyroid cancer. 

Risk factors associated with thyroid cancer include:

  • Gender and age: Women are affected more frequently (up to three times more) by thyroid cancer than men. While thyroid cancers can arise at any age, most thyroid cancers affect adults (most commonly, women in their 40s and 50s, and men in their 60s).
  • Hereditary conditions: Certain genetic conditions such as Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) syndrome, Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP), Cowden’s syndrome and others may increase risk of thyroid cancers.
  • Family history: Known history of first-degree relatives with thyroid cancer.
  • A diet low in iodine: While low-iodine in diet can increase risk for thyroid nodules and cancers, most people in the U.S. receive sufficient iodine in their diet from fortified salt.
  • Radiation exposure: Patients who undergo certain forms of head and neck radiation treatments, particularly at a young age, may be at increased risk for thyroid cancers. Fallout from nuclear power plant accidents or nuclear weapons may be the other rare sources of exposure to radiation that may contribute to risk for thyroid cancers.

Symptoms of thyroid cancer

  • A lump or swelling in the neck
  • Pain in the front of the neck, that may sometimes radiate to the ears
  • Hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble breathing
  • A constant cough that is not due to a cold

These symptoms may not be specific to thyroid cancers and can be observed in other head and neck cancers and some non-cancerous disease conditions. However, these symptoms should encourage patients to seek a prompt and thorough evaluation by a medical professional.

How are thyroid cancers diagnosed?

Your physician will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. An ultrasound, which uses sound waves to image the thyroid gland and other structures of the neck, may be used as part of the workup. In a small number of cases, additional imaging studies such as a CT or MRI scan may be needed. 

You may be asked to undergo a blood test for thyroid hormone levels, and a biopsy may be performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Thyroid cancer is highly curable

The good news is that thyroid cancer is highly curable, and when properly treated, the risk of dying from most thyroid cancers remains very low.

Read more: Treating Thyroid Cancer

Patients with thyroid cancer may require surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland to achieve cure. Surgery can be performed safely in a vast majority of patients, and most patients can return home on the same day. 

In some cases, additional treatment with radioactive iodine may be needed. Most patients do not need radiation or chemotherapy to treat thyroid cancer. Depending on the nature of treatment and hormone levels, patients may require replacement of thyroid hormone with a once daily pill taken by mouth, which is well-tolerated.

With the help of a range of specialists devoted to comprehensive care of the whole person, most people who undergo treatment heal quickly and live normal, healthy and productive lives. 

Knowing your body and speaking with your Methodist Physicians Clinic health care provider about changes you experience is the best way to protect your thyroid’s good health.

Aru Panwar

About the Author:

Dr. Aru Panwar says the relationship he builds with his patients is so special to him. He feels honored to be a part of his patients' journey and help them achieve the goals that are important to them.

Dr. Panwar attended medical school at the University College of Medical Sciences & GTB Hospital, completed his residency at Creighton University Medical Center and his fellowship at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Today, he's treating patients at the Methodist Head and Neck Surgical Oncology Clinic.

See More Articles by Aru Panwar