Performing a quick self-exam is one of the best ways to detect thyroid cancer early.
Thyroid cancer is one of the most survivable cancers (the five-year survival rate is nearly 97 percent), but there’s no excuse not to look for its symptoms, considering how quickly and easily you can perform a self-exam at home.
You could be one of the estimated 15 million Americans with undiagnosed thyroid problems. But with a few tips from the American College of Endocrinology, an arm of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), you’ll soon be on your way to improved thyroid health.
A ‘neck check’ is a simple procedure that can be done just about anywhere. If you have a glass of water and a mirror, you’re ready to look for symptoms of thyroid disorders.
Dr. Jeffrey Mechanick, clinical professor of Medicine, Endocrinology, Diabetes and Bone Disease at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and president of the AACE, provides some painless guidelines:
- First, locate your thyroid gland, which is above your collarbone and below your larynx, or voice box. Don’t confuse your thyroid with your Adam’s apple, which lies above the thyroid gland.
- Keeping your focus on this part of the neck, tip your head back, then swallow a drink of water.
- Look at your neck in the mirror while you swallow, checking for any static or moving bumps.
There’s no definitive recommendation for when to begin performing self-exams, but Mechanick does note that the cancer can appear in young adulthood. It also rarely develops in childhood or adolescence.
“Every person when they have their general physical should have a thyroid exam, and then people who are at higher risk should potentially have a thyroid ultrasound…and not rely just on the manual exam,” Mechanick said. “By doing this you can detect thyroid cancer at the very early stages.”
“Symptoms of thyroid disease are relatively non-specific,” says Mechanick, “and do not necessarily have to be associated with a structural abnormality,” such as a lump.
However, the most common tip-off to thyroid cancer is a mass in the neck. “It’s very rare that it would manifest itself in any other way,” Mechanick said.
He adds, “We generally don’t see people presenting with advanced thyroid cancer with clinical deterioration the way you might with other forms of cancer.” Some cancers, he says, such as pancreatic or gastric cancer, have common, telltale symptoms, including drastic weight loss.
People with a family history of under-active or overactive thyroid glands have a greater risk of developing thyroid problems themselves. People who have been exposed to radiation treatment in the head and neck or toxic radiation are also at risk. (This doesn’t include radiation exposure from X-ray tests.)
Fortunately, thyroid cancer is slow-growing, and “people infrequently succumb to it,” said Mechanick. The cancer can often be treated with surgery or radioactive iodine treatment, and it rarely requires further therapy after that.
Prevention is only possible with early detection, which is why self-exams are so crucial for finding and treating thyroid diseases.