Thyroid Cancer
Cancer That Starts In The Thyroid Gland

cancers in the throat

picture of thyroid cancer

Thyroid Cancers

Contents

What Is Thyroid Cancer?
Are There Different Types?
What Are The Symptoms?
What Causes Thyroid Cancer?
How Is It Diagnosed?
How Is It Treated?
What Are The Stages?
What Is The Life Expectancy?
Can It Be Prevented?
Personal Stories


Related Guides:

Thyroid Disease Information
Cancer Guide
Respiratory System

What Is Thyroid Cancer?

It is a cancer which starts in the thyroid gland (located at the front of your neck). Thyroid cancer is a relatively rare disease, about 15,000 new cases are diagnosed every year in the United States and between 1,500 and 2,000 deaths are attributed to it annually. Of all the cancers you could get, thyroid cancer is probably the least dangerous and has a high cure rate. Most cases are not aggressive and develop slowly. In fact some studies indicate that as much as 6 percent of the population could have thyroid cancer but live and die naturally without knowing it (so mild is the progression of the disease). If you find a cancerous lump on your neck before the age of 45, it is less likely to grow aggressively than if you find it later on.

Are There Different Types?

Yes, there are a few different types of thyroid cancer. These include:

Papillary Carcinoma: By far the most common but least dangerous type of cancer. It accounts for about 70 percent of cases. It can be present for decades with causing any harm and is 3 times more common in women than in men. It usually starts between the ages of 30 and 50 and spreads very slowly, rarely progressing beyond the neck.
Follicular Carcinoma: This is a little more aggressive but is still relatively mild. Accounts for about 10 percent of cases. After treatment it is more likely recur and spread, so follow up is very important.
Medullary Carcinoma: Accounts of 5 percent of cases. Unlike the other 3 cancers, it does not start in the cells that produce thyroid hormones, but rather in another type of cell found in the thyroid called the C cell. Medullary cancers need a different treatment plan to the other types. 20 percent of cases are heredity.
Anaplastic Carcinoma: Also called undifferentiated cancer, it only accounts for 2 percent of cases. It is the most dangerous type and is rarely cured.

What Are The Symptoms?

The signs will depend on the type of cancer present, but may include:
• Lumps on the throat called thyroid nodules.
• Enlargement of the thyroid gland or goiters.
• Difficulties swallowing.
• Tickling cough.
• Hoarseness or changes in your voice.

What Causes Thyroid Cancer?

Basically scientists still do not understand the causes of cancer. People who have had radiation treatment to the neck when they were younger for other conditions (such as acne) seem to be at higher risk of thyroid cancer, as well as those with severe goiters and those with a family history of medullary cancer. You may find it useful to read about the causes of thyroid disease.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Typically most thyroid cancers are discovered either by the patient themselves when they spot a lump in their throat, or during an ultrasound scan being performed on the neck for another reason. The doctor will perform a physical examination looking for signs of lumps and swelling in the neck area. He may also order some blood tests to check the patient's thyroid hormone levels (TSH levels). Very often this blood test result can come back normal in people with cancer because abnormal levels are an indication of more common disorders like hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. A calcitonin blood test will check for medullary cancer. If all results come back negative he will probably order other thyroid tests like a radionuclide thyroid scan. If the result of the scan indicates the lump is 'cold', it is more likely to be cancer. However, ultimately the only way to be sure is to carry out a biopsy. This involves injecting a small needle directly into the lump and extracting a small tissue sample. The tissue is sent to a pathologist for diagnosis.

How Is It Treated?

Treatment depends on the size of the lump (tumor) and the type of cancer present. In most cases if the tumor is less than 1cm in width, part of the thyroid tissue is surgically removed (partial thyroidectomy). If the tumor is larger, the entire thyroid gland is removed (in advanced cases the surrounding lymph nodes will also be removed). If the entire gland is removed (most cases), within a few weeks of surgery a blood test will be performed. This is to check the patient's TSH thyroid hormone levels. If the levels are high (above 20), this means some thyroid tissue was missed during surgery and needs to be destroyed. This can be done by applying radiation therapy directly to the area, or by taking radioactive iodine by mouth. Long-term you will need to take a very low dose thyroid hormone pill, to keep your TSH levels low but still active. If the cancer is more extensive or recurs, chemotherapy may be finally considered.

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What Are The Stages?

To distinguish between the severity of a case, doctors refer to cancer by stages. Thyroid cancers are staged from 1 to 4, the higher the stage, the lower the chance of survival:
Stage 1: The tumor is limited to the thyroid gland and has not spread.
Stage 2: The tumor has spread to nearby lymph nodes, but the tumor has not attached to nearby tissues yet.
Stage 3: The tumor and/or lymph nodes have attached to nearby tissues.
Stage 4: The tumor has spread beyond the neck.

What Is The Life Expectancy?

1. More than 95 percent of patients with papillary or follicular carcinoma are alive after 10 years. Most are in fact cured of their disease.
2. After 10 years, 70 percent of people with medullary thyroid cancer are still alive.
3. Less than 10 percent of anaplastic cancer patients are alive after 3 years. Most die within 3 to 6 months of the diagnosis. The only hope may be participation in cancer clinical trials where new experimental treatments are being tested.

Can It Be Prevented?

No, thyroid cancer is not considered preventable. However, sometimes people with a high incidence rate in their family may consider having the thyroid removed to prevent possible problems (prophylactic surgery). Read also about cancer prevention.

Personal Stories

I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year and they removed my thyroid. The cancer was the slow growing type which means even if the cancer is not removed you can still live a normal lifespan. I also had my lymph nodes removed. In all honesty, I'm not sure I would have bothered having my thyroid removed, now that I've done some research. I've been on levothyroxine medications since and I've had a lot of trouble losing weight, even though my doc says my hormone levels are fine. I'm tired much more often than I used to be. Instead of having my gland removed, I think I would have checked out alternative therapies first. Now I'm on a pill for the rest of my life.

My daughter had thyroid cancer and had surgery to remove the gland. She's doing just fine. My parents died from lymphoma and lung cancer, so she was high risk. She's 24 years old and had the operation 2 years ago. Her doctor says if you're going to have cancer, then it's the best one to get. The most curable he means.

Before I was diagnosed the only symptoms I had was a hard lump on my throat. It was called a thyroid nodule. The vast majority are benign. I was the unlucky one!

I had my thyroid removed completely last year due to papillary thyroid cancer. I now have to take 250mg of Levothroid every day for the rest of my life.

I was pregnant when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I had a biopsy when I was about 11 weeks pregnant. It turned out to be suspicious which usually means cancer. And it was. My doctor told me I could wait until after the baby was born to have surgery, but I told him to do it straight away. I had surgery in the second trimester when I was 18 weeks pregnant. I didn't have any problems and went on to give birth to a bouncing baby boy. We're both doing really well.

  Related Articles on Cancer of the Thyroid

For other thyroid problems, see the following:

Graves Disease: Immune disorder which causes hyperthyroidism.
Hashimoto's Disease: Immune disorder leading to hypothyroidism.
Thyroid Disease And Pregnancy: Pre-existing diagnosis and if you develop it while pregnant.

Back To Homepage: Womens Health Advice


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WOMENS HEALTH ADVICE: ABOUT THYROID DISEASES
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