The thyroid gland is a part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system produces hormones that regulate the normal functions of the body. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the throat. It has a left and right lobe. The middle of the thyroid gland, where the lobes connect, is called the isthmus. The thyroid makes the hormone thyroxine. This helps the body regulate:
- blood pressure
- heart rate
- body temperature
Thyroid cancer is the most common type of endocrine cancer. Diagnosis is on the rise in the United States. This may be because it has become easier to find the disease.
Early thyroid cancer has no symptoms. You won’t be able to feel your thyroid gland if it’s healthy. As thyroid cancer progresses, the following symptoms may occur:
- a lump in the throat
- a cough
- pain in the throat and neck
- difficulty swallowing
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Talk to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
Risk factors for thyroid cancer include:
- a family history of thyroid cancer
- female gender
- a history of breast cancer
- a history of radiation exposure
Age is also a risk factor. Thyroid cancer is most likely to occur after age 40.
Thyroid cancers are classified according to the appearance of the cancerous cells. Cancerous cells that look very similar to healthy cells are called well-differentiated cells. Well-differentiated cells grow at a slower rate than undifferentiated cells. The various types of thyroid cancer include:
Papillary Thyroid Cancer
Papillary thyroid cancer is a well-differentiated form of thyroid cancer. It’s the most common type of thyroid cancer. It’s most often seen in women of childbearing age. Papillary thyroid cancer is less dangerous than the other types. It spreads more slowly, and it’s very treatable.
Medullary Thyroid Cancer
Medullary thyroid cancer is another well-differentiated form of thyroid cancer. Some cases of medullary thyroid cancer have a genetic component. This can cause it to occur as part of a syndrome of endocrine gland cancers. Cases without a genetic component are said to be “sporadic.”
Medullary thyroid cancer arises in non-thyroid cells that are located within the thyroid gland. It’s treated differently than other forms of thyroid cancer.
Follicular Thyroid Cancer
Follicular thyroid cancer is the type of thyroid cancer most likely to spread and recur. Hurthle cell cancer is a type of follicular cancer.
Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer
Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most aggressive form of thyroid cancer. It’s rare and difficult to treat.
This is a rare type of thyroid cancer. It begins in immune cells located within the thyroid gland.
Thyroid cancer may be diagnosed by physical exam or laboratory test. An examination of the neck may reveal a small or large mass in the thyroid. Lymph nodes may also be enlarged.
Lab tests and procedures that are used to diagnose thyroid cancer include:
- thyroid function tests
- a thyroglobulin test, which is used for papillary or follicular cancers
- an ultrasound of the thyroid
- a thyroid scan
- a thyroid biopsy
- calcium level in the blood
- phosphorous level in the blood
- calcitonin level in the blood
The treatment will depend on what type of cancer you have and if the cancer has metastasized, or spread.
Most people undergo surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid gland. The thyroid hormone can then be replaced with supplements.
Other treatment methods include:
- radioactive iodine
- external beam radiation therapy
People who are diagnosed in the early stages of thyroid cancer generally respond well to treatment and go into remission. Some types of thyroid cancer have a higher rate of recurrence than others.
Make sure you go to routine follow-up appointments after you’re in remission. You’ll be monitored for signs of recurrent cancer for the rest of your life. Your doctor will also want to routinely check that the amount of thyroid replacement hormones you’re taking is correct for you.
The cause of thyroid cancer isn’t determined in most cases. This means that for most people there’s no known way to prevent it.
However, medullary thyroid cancer is hereditary. Talk to your doctor if your family has a history of medullary thyroid cancer. They can refer you to a genetic counselor who can determine how likely you are to develop thyroid cancer.
People who live near nuclear power plants are more likely to develop thyroid cancer than people who don’t. Talk to your doctor about potassium iodine pills if you live near a nuclear power plant. In the event of nuclear fallout, you can take these pills to help prevent thyroid cancer.
Keep up with your annual checkups, and let your doctor know if you’re having any new symptoms. This will make it more likely that your doctor will find any potentially serious health complications in the earliest stages.