Symptoms of papillary thyroid cancer, which may not appear immediately, include swelling or pain in the front of your neck, difficulty swallowing, and a hoarse voice.

Papillary thyroid cancer rarely causes symptoms until it grows large enough to create a noticeable tumor. Most of the time, this tumor is easily treatable with surgery. If the tumor grows large, it might cause additional symptoms such as:

  • a hoarse voice
  • trouble swallowing
  • swelling

If papillary thyroid cancer is caught before it spreads to other tissues, the chances of dying from it in the United States are almost 0%.

Keep reading to learn more about the potential symptoms of papillary thyroid cancer.

Papillary thyroid cancer usually starts as a painless mass in your thyroid gland, sometimes with enlargement of surrounding lymph nodes. In roughly a quarter of people diagnosed, the cancer has spread to lymph nodes by the time of diagnosis.

The mass is usually less than 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) across. It usually feels firm and immobile when touched.

About 20% of people also have trouble swallowing or hoarseness when diagnosed. These symptoms are signs that the tumor is compressing the laryngeal nerve or your windpipe.

Papillary thyroid cancer is sometimes discovered before it causes symptoms during a routine physical exam or imaging for an unrelated problem.

Other potential symptoms include:

When to see a doctor

It’s a good idea to see a doctor if you notice an enlargement or swelling around the front of your neck. Getting an early diagnosis gives you the best chance of receiving successful treatment.

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Metastatic thyroid cancer

Metastatic cancer means that cancer has spread to distant parts of your body. Metastatic papillary thyroid cancer is rare, but when it occurs, it frequently involves your lungs or bones, such as your:

  • sternum
  • vertebrae
  • pelvis
  • ribs
  • femur

In a 2019 case study, researchers reported a rare case of papillary thyroid carcinoma spreading to the mandible, also called the jawbone.

Symptoms of metastatic papillary cancer that has spread to the bones

Potential symptoms of metastatic papillary cancer that has spread to bones include:

Symptoms of metastatic papillary cancer that has spread to the lungs

If the cancer spreads to your lungs, it’s possible to develop symptoms such as:

Learn more about metastatic thyroid cancer.

Risk factors for papillary thyroid cancer

Risk factors for papillary thyroid carcinoma include:

  • exposure to significant ionizing radiation
  • childhood exposure to low dose radiation therapy of the head or neck, used to treat various diseases in the 1940s–1960s
  • environmental radiation exposure, such as being near the Chornobyl nuclear accident in 1986, which increased rates of papillary thyroid carcinoma by 3–75 times
  • living in a region with high dietary iodine intake
  • having a pre-existing noncancerous thyroid disease
  • having overweight or obesity
  • having an associated genetic cancer syndrome such as:
    • Carney complex type 1
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Roughly two-thirds of people diagnosed between the years 2011–2020 in the United States had cancer contained to the thyroid gland, and only 2.1% had cancer spread to distant tissues. Papillary thyroid cancer often spreads to nearby lymph nodes, but cancer spread to lymph nodes usually still has a good outlook.

Of people diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer from 2000–2019, 99.6% who hadn’t died from unrelated causes were still alive 10 years after their diagnosis.

Here are the 5-year relative survival rates for papillary thyroid cancer in the United States between 2012–2018:

Stage5-year relative survival rate
Localizedover 99.5%
Regional99%
Distant74%
All stagesover 99.5%

The 5-year relative survival rate is a measure of how many people with the cancer are alive 5 years after their diagnosis compared to people without the cancer.

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Factors linked to a poorer outlook include:

  • older age
  • larger tumor size
  • male sex
  • growth outside of the thyroid gland
  • spread to blood vessels

Learn more about the survival rate for thyroid cancer.

Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type of thyroid cancer, and it also has the best outlook. The first symptom is often a noticeable mass in the front of your neck over your thyroid gland. Some people also have enlarged lymph nodes.

If you develop potential symptoms of thyroid cancer, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

With early treatment, almost everybody with papillary thyroid cancer limited to the thyroid gland survives. Surgery is the most common treatment for early-stage thyroid cancer.