The earliest signs of thyroid cancer are often subtle, making it hard to tell it apart from other conditions. But neck lumps or swollen lymph nodes are a sign to see a doctor.

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck. The thyroid produces hormones that help regulate your blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and metabolism.

Thyroid cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow in your thyroid. This type of cancer is quite common. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 43,000 new cases and over 2,000 deaths in the United States in 2023. People born female are three times more likely to get a thyroid cancer diagnosis than people born male.

Scientists don’t know the exact cause of thyroid cancer. They believe that genetic mutations can cause thyroid cells to become cancerous. Other risk factors include exposure to high levels of radiation and a lack of iodine in your diet. Still, some people with thyroid cancer have no specific risk factors.

Due to its slow progression, some people might have thyroid cancer for months or even years before realizing it. However, it can be easy for doctors to detect during regular checkups, imaging tests, or if you notice neck lumps or nodules.

Unlike other cancers, thyroid cancer is one of the easiest to detect. Most people have a painless lump on their neck, voice changes, and breathing problems during its early stages. Regular health checkups and looking for lumps on your neck can help you get an early diagnosis.

Later symptoms include sore throat and difficulty swallowing. These can be uncomfortable and lead you to see a doctor, who will perform certain tests and make a diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms are two different things:

  • A sign is something you can see. It could be a change in your skin color or a whistling sound when you breathe.
  • A symptom is your sense of physical change to your body or appearance. You might feel exhausted or have some pain. Other people cannot see this, and only you can feel it.

Earliest signs of thyroid cancer

You may notice the following signs within a few months after the cancer forms:

  • lumps, nodules, or unusual swelling in your neck
  • swelling in the lymph nodes in your neck
  • voice changes

Earliest symptoms of thyroid cancer

After a few months of the cancer forming, you may experience a lump or swelling around your throat and changes to your ability to swallow.

Later signs of thyroid cancer

Certain visible signs may appear in some people as the disease progresses, typically within a few years after the cancer has formed. These can include:

Later symptoms of thyroid cancer

As the cancer progresses, generally years after it begins, some of the symptoms grow more intense and may now include difficulty swallowing or persistent neck pain.

Thyroid cancer may not show any clear symptoms in its early stages. However, regular checkups and tests can help you detect it early.

Signs that warrant an immediate visit to a doctor

If you notice these signs, you may want to schedule a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible:

  • a new lump or a noticeable change in an existing nodule or lump in your neck
  • persistent pain in your neck or throat that may even extend to your ears
  • voice changes that last over 2 weeks, such as unexplained hoarseness
  • difficulty in breathing or swallowing

An examination is necessary to get a proper diagnosis, rule out thyroid cancer, or start treatment right away.

Early detection improves your outlook.

Thyroid cancer is often found when you or your doctor discover a lump or swelling in your neck. Medical professionals typically use a series of tests to confirm the diagnosis. These include:

  • Ultrasound: Ultrasound helps doctors see the size and nature of nodules that indicate an abnormal growth of thyroid cells. These could be solid or fluid-filled. While many thyroid nodules are not cancerous, any abnormal growth is worth looking at closer.
  • Radioiodine scan: A radioiodine scan involves swallowing or injecting a small amount of radioactive iodine. The doctor then uses a special camera that measures the amount of radiation in the gland and detects abnormalities.
  • Biopsy: While other tests can help find possible abnormalities, a biopsy is the diagnostic procedure that determines if a lump is cancerous. This involves taking a sample of the lump cells and looking at them in a laboratory.

Catching thyroid cancer early is crucial since this type of cancer can quietly progress over years without showing any significant symptoms. Getting an early diagnosis helps you get successful treatment.

Here are some frequently asked questions about thyroid cancer.

How does thyroid cancer make you feel?

If you have thyroid cancer, you might not feel any symptoms in the very early stages. But as the disease progresses, you may notice an unusual lump or swelling in your neck, a persistent cough, or changes in your voice. Later on, your metabolism may fluctuate, causing fatigue or weight changes.

How fast does thyroid cancer spread?

It depends on the type and stage of the cancer. Some thyroid cancers can take months or years to spread. Others, such as anaplastic thyroid cancer, can spread very fast.

What happens if you leave thyroid cancer untreated?

If you do not get treatment, thyroid cancer can grow and spread to other parts of your body, leading to more severe health problems.

Can you die from thyroid cancer?

Yes, it is possible to die from thyroid cancer, but it is relatively rare. Most people with thyroid cancer respond well to treatment, and the outlook is generally good. However, some aggressive forms of thyroid cancer may be life threatening.

Initially, thyroid cancer may not show any signs or symptoms. However, people typically visit a doctor when they notice a painless lump on their neck. The earlier you get a diagnosis, the better your chances are of successful treatment.