Your Thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that makes hormones that go into your blood and then to every cell in your body.
Thyroid hormones play a big role in helping your body work right. They help keep you warm and give you energy. They also support your muscles as well as your heart, brain, and other organs.
What is Thyroid Cancer?
When you have cancer, faulty cells grow out of control and crowd out healthy ones. There are four types of thyroid cancer: papillary, follicular, medullary and anaplastic. How serious the illness is and the kind of treatment you get depends in part on which type you have.
Nodule on your Thyroid
Thyroid cancer may not cause any symptoms early on. The first sign is often a small bump, or “nodule,” on your thyroid gland. It’s not something you are likely to notice on your own.
Your doctor usually feels it in a physical exam. He might spot it in an X-ray or CT scan, often after you get one for another problem. About 90% of the time, these nodules are benign (non-cancerous) and need little or no treatment.
What else to watch out for
As thyroid cancer gets more advanced, you might notice symptoms like:
Lump or swelling in your neck that’s especially fast-growing, pain at the front of your neck or moving up to your ears, constant cough or hoarseness, with no obvious cause and trouble breathing or swallowing
These could suggest a number of different illnesses besides thyroid cancer, so talk to your doctor about all your symptoms.
Your doctor may start with a physical exam and ask you about your family medical history. He may put a small, thin camera down your throat to look for problems, a procedure called a laryngoscopy.
He might take images of your thyroid with an MRI, CT scan, or ultrasound. To make a diagnosis of thyroid cancer, your doctor will do a biopsy by removing some thyroid tissue and checking it for cancer cells.
Differentiated Thyroid Cancers
Most thyroid cancers are called differentiated which means the cancer cells tend to look a lot like normal cells. One differentiated type, papillary, usually grows in one of the two lobes of your thyroid.
Although it sometimes spreads to the lymph nodes of the neck, treatment for this type of cancer is quite successful. A lack of iodine may lead to another type, follicular, that doesn’t typically spread to the lymph nodes.
Papillary Thyroid Cancer (PTC)
This is the most common form of thyroid cancer (approximately 85 percent of all cases). PTC affects more women than men. The prognosis for most patients with adequately treated papillary thyroid cancer is excellent. In many patients, this form of thyroid cancer can be cured.
Medullary Thyroid Cancer (MTC)
It starts in thyroid cells that doctors call C cells. The cancerous cells can spread to your lungs, liver, or lymph nodes before you even notice it.
Sporadic MTC, which doesn’t run in families, is the most common kind of MTC. Familial MTC, which your parents pass to you through their genes, makes up about 20% of cases. The familial type usually shows up in both lobes of your thyroid when you are a child or young adult.
Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer (ATC)
It’s fairly rare, making up about 2% of all thyroid cancers, and it’s most common in older women. It grows and spreads quickly to the neck and other parts of the body. It is called undifferentiated because the cells don’t look like normal thyroid cells. It’s hard to treat. In some cases, it seems to grow from papillary or follicular cancer.
Follicular Thyroid Cancer (FTC)
This accounts for about 10 percent of thyroid cancer cases. It is slightly more aggressive than PTC, and can spread to other parts of the body. However, in most cases, the prognosis is excellent.
Surgery is the first line of defense for thyroid cancer. Your surgeon might remove some or all of the gland and the surrounding lymph nodes, depending on the extent and type of the cancer.
Often, surgery is enough, but when the tumors are larger or spread elsewhere in the body, your doctor may suggest radiation, chemotherapy, radioactive iodine, or targeted therapy that goes after specific cancer cell types.
Causes of Thyroid Cancer
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes thyroid cancer, but there are certain things that appear to make people more likely to get it.
Risk factors for thyroid cancer include:
Gender: Women have three times the risk of developing thyroid cancer than men.
Age: Thyroid cancer can occur at any age, but is more common in younger individuals who have thyroid nodules. However, nodules themselves (both benign and malignant) are more common with advanced age.
History of radiation exposure: Having radiation to the throat as a child increases risk.
Iodine deficiency: Your risk is higher if your diet is low in the mineral iodine.
Family history: Thyroid cancer can run in families. Individuals who are experiencing persistent symptoms in the front of their neck, or patients who have risk factors for thyroid carcinoma should undergo an examination of their neck by an experienced physician.
Even if surgery and other treatments get rid of your thyroid cancer cells, you will need to go back to the doctor to check if the cancer has returned.
Go to all your follow-up appointments, and tell your medical team about any new or returning symptoms. This is important because thyroid cancer can grow back slowly, sometimes 10 or 20 years after your first treatment.