Thyroid cancer is cancer of the thyroid gland. This gland makes thyroid hormone, and it is found in the front of the neck. Thyroid gland tumors often appear as bumps in the neck, called nodules. In most cases, thyroid nodules are not cancerous. However, those that are cancerous have the potential to spread throughout the body.
There are several types of thyroid cancer, including papillary carcinoma (most common type, often curable), follicular carcinoma (second most common type, often curable if caught early), anaplastic carcinoma (rare form of thyroid cancer that is often fatal), medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC that can exist in one of two types), and/or thyroid lymphoma (rare type of thyroid cancer often associated with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis).
The cause is unknown, but factors that may increase the risk of thyroid cancer include a diet low in iodine, a history of radiation to the head, neck, or chest, especially in infancy or childhood, a family history of thyroid cancer, female gender, age 30 years and over, and/or exposure to radioactive fallout (e.g., exposed to radiation from nuclear accidents or exposed to nuclear testing area during childhood)
Symptoms may include a lump in the neck, neck pain (sometimes going up to the ears), hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, persistent cough, and/or enlarged lymph glands in the neck.
Our surgeons will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will also be done. This may include a careful examination of your neck to look for lumps or abnormalities. Our surgeons may order tests, such as a fine needle aspiration, routine blood tests, thyroid scan, ultrasound, and/or biopsy of thyroid tissue.
Once thyroid cancer is found, staging tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Examples of treatment options include thyroidectomy —This is the removal of all or part of the thyroid gland, radioactive iodine therapy—This uses large doses of radioactive iodine to destroy the thyroid gland and thyroid cancer without affecting the rest of the body, and/or external radiation therapy—This is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation is directed at the tumor from a source outside the body.
Because the exact cause of thyroid cancer is unknown, finding it early and treating it is the best way to prevent dying from the disease. Your doctor may recommend screening tests for you, for example: have a thyroid exam every three years if you are aged 20-39 years old, and/or have a thyroid exam every year if you are aged 40 years or older. Since exposure to radiation is a major risk factor for thyroid cancer, you should avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation. If you have been exposed to radiation of the head, neck, or chest, have frequent checks for thyroid cancer.
Anesthesia prevents pain during the procedure. Pain after the procedure is common. You will be given medicine to help manage this. The usual length of stay is one day. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if complications arise. There will be discomfort in your neck for several days. The pain can be treated with medicine. In some cases, you may have a hoarse voice for a few days. Depending on how much of the thyroid is removed, you may need to take replacement thyroid hormone. In some cases of thyroid cancer, you may need radioactive iodine treatments. This is called remnant ablation.