Parathyroid cancer is a very rare type of cancer, leading to fragile and painful bones, digestive trouble, and kidney stones.
Less than 100 people receive a diagnosis in the United States each year. This cancer grows in your parathyroid glands and causes your body to overproduce an important hormone called parathyroid hormone.
This type of cancer is treated with surgery to remove the tumor. Additional treatment is sometimes used to kill remaining cancer cells and to help manage your symptoms.
Read on for more detail about this particular cancer and how you might recognize it, as well as treatment options you can discuss with a healthcare team.
Parathyroid cancer is the growth of a tumor in any of your body’s four parathyroid glands. Most tumors that grow in a parathyroid gland are benign. Cancerous tumors are rare. When they occur, they change how your body produces parathyroid hormone.
This hormone controls phosphorus and calcium levels in your blood. Parathyroid cancer results in too much calcium circulating in your blood. This can lead to symptoms such as weak bones, bone pain, and fatigue.
What does the parathyroid gland do?
The body has four parathyroid glands. These small glands are located in your neck. The glands produce the parathyroid hormone, which regulates the calcium and phosphorus in your blood. Your bones, tissues, nerves, and muscles need to receive the right amount of calcium and phosphorus to function correctly. When they don’t, it can cause widespread body symptoms.
Staging helps doctors talk about and treat parathyroid cancer. The stage is determined after diagnostic testing. Parathyroid cancer is typically put into one of three stages:
- Localized: Localized parathyroid cancer is only found in the parathyroid gland and hasn’t spread.
- Metastatic: Metastatic parathyroid cancer has spread beyond the parathyroid gland. Cancer at this stage is found in areas such as the lymph nodes of your head and neck, bones, or organs.
- Recurrent: Recurrent parathyroid cancer is cancer that has returned after the first round of treatment.
The exact cause of parathyroid cancer is unknown. This type of cancer is very rare, and more research is needed.
The only known risk factors for parathyroid cancer are passed down genetic conditions. These conditions don’t directly cause cancer, but they can increase your likelihood of tumor development. Genetic factors that can increase the risk of parathyroid cancer include:
multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1
- hyperparathyroidism-jaw tumor syndrome
- familial isolated hyperparathyroidism (FIHP)
- family history of parathyroid cancer
These other conditions are rare and passed down in some families.
Most of the signs and symptoms of parathyroid cancer are caused by a high level of blood calcium. Symptoms can increase as the cancer spreads.
These symptoms may include:
- bone pain
- bone weakness and fractures
- muscle pain
- reduced appetite
- unintentional weight loss
- excessive thirst
- frequent urination
- kidney stones
- trouble swallowing
- hoarse voice
- lump in your neck
Many of these signs and symptoms are also associated with other, less serious, conditions.
Parathyroid cancer is rare, and having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer. But like all cancers, parathyroid cancer has the best treatment options and outcomes when it’s diagnosed early.
It’s always best to get any of these symptoms checked out by a medical professional, especially if you’ve had them for more than a week or two.
It can be very difficult to diagnose parathyroid cancer.
The first step is a medical appointment. A doctor or healthcare professional will perform a physical exam and go over your medical history and symptoms. Sometimes, parathyroid can be felt in your neck during a physical exam. If cancer is suspected, you’ll likely have more testing done.
This might include:
- Blood tests: Blood tests can measure the level of parathyroid hormone in your blood.
- Serum calcium test: A serum calcium test is a blood test to measure the level of calcium in your blood.
- CT scan: A CT scan is an imaging test that can create detailed images of your organs and glands. It can help doctors see the size and exact location of tumors.
- Single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) scan: A
SPECT scanis a specialized type of CT scan that can help diagnose parathyroid cancer. For this test, a mixture of a protein called sestamibi is mixed with radioactive material and injected into your veins. A parathyroid tumor will absorb the material and become more visible in images.
- Surgery: Often, the entire tumor is removed during a surgical procedure before a diagnosis is confirmed. The removed tumor is then biopsied and tested for parathyroid cancer.
The primary treatment for parathyroid cancer is surgery. During surgery, doctors will attempt to remove as much of the tumor as possible.
After surgery, treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can help kill any remaining cancer cells, stop the spread of cancer, and can keep cancer from returning.
Sometimes, you might also have treatment to help lower the amount of calcium in your blood and reduce your symptoms. This might include:
- intravenous (IV) fluids
- oral medications to control calcium levels
- oral medications to stop bone breakdown
Parathyroid cancer is a slow-growing cancer that can be treated successfully for many people who have it.
But the 5-year survival rate varies depending on factors such as stage at diagnosis, response to treatment, and individual health. Research shows that 5-year survival rates currently average between 20% and 85%. It’s important to note that this data is only calculated every 5 years. Current survival rates don’t always reflect the recent treatment improvements and rises in survivorship.
As always, consult a doctor or healthcare team about your specific outlook.
Parathyroid cancer is a rare type of cancer that grows in one of your parathyroid glands. This cancer causes an overproduction of the parathyroid hormone, which can lead to abnormally high levels of calcium in your blood. High blood calcium causes symptoms such as bone and muscle pain, unintentional weight loss, and urinary difficulties.
The primary treatment for parathyroid cancer is surgery to remove the tumor. Sometimes, radiation and chemotherapy are used to kill the remaining cancer cells. The outlook of individual people with parathyroid cancer can vary widely depending on factors such as stage at diagnosis, overall health, and response to treatment.