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Thyroid Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Thyroid cancer is an abnormal growth in the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped organ in the lower front of the neck. It's about three times more common in women than in men.

Most thyroid cancers are slow-growing and respond well to treatment.

Thyroid cancer treatment often involves surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid.

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What Is Thyroid Cancer?

Doctors define thyroid cancer as a disease of the thyroid gland. It happens when cells in the thyroid tissue grow out of control and become cancerous.

The thyroid is a crucial body part. It makes hormones that affect nearly every organ.

These hormones control:

  • Breathing.
  • Digestion.
  • Heart rate.
  • Metabolism.
  • Mood.

How common is thyroid cancer?

Nodules on your thyroid are common, but cancer of the thyroid is not. Only about one in 10 nodules are cancerous.

Doctors diagnose about 44,000 people in the U.S. with thyroid cancer each year (compared to 280,000 with breast cancer).

Survival from thyroid cancer is very high. About 2,000 people die from thyroid cancer yearly.

Early detection is key to recovering from thyroid cancer.

Most thyroid cancer types grow slowly. Doctors can treat them successfully if found early.

What are the types of thyroid cancer?

There are four main types of thyroid cancer.

They are:

  • Papillary thyroid cancer. The most common type, it makes up 70% to 80% of all thyroid cancers. It can occur at any age and grows slowly. Even if it spreads to the lymph nodes, it responds well to treatment.
  • Follicular thyroid cancer. This type makes up about 10% to 15% of thyroid cancers. It can spread through the blood to the lungs and bones. It mostly affects older people.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer. This type is rare, making up only 2% of all thyroid cancers. It sometimes runs in families — more often than other types of thyroid cancer.
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer. This is very rare, occurring in less than 2% of people with thyroid cancer. It's the most aggressive thyroid cancer, growing quickly and invading surrounding structures such as the windpipe. It usually occurs in older people.

What causes thyroid cancer?

In most cases, doctors don't know what causes thyroid cancer.

But some factors increase the risk of getting it.

What are thyroid cancer risks and complications?

Certain environmental and genetic factors make you more likely to get thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer risks

You're at greater risk for thyroid cancer if you:

  • Are born female.
  • Are Asian.
  • Are between 25 and 65 years old.
  • Are overweight or obese.
  • Had exposure to radiation as a child or infant.
  • Had exposure to radioactive fallout.
  • Have a family history of thyroid disease or thyroid cancer.
  • Have a gene that predisposes you to thyroid cancer.
  • Have a history of rare adrenal tumors (pheochromocytomas) in your family.
  • Have had a goiter.

Complications of thyroid cancer

Thyroid cancer can lead to other problems, such as:

  • The cancer spreading to other body parts, such as the lungs, liver, and bones.
  • Damage to your voice box after thyroid surgery.
  • Low calcium levels after thyroid surgery.
  • Needing lifelong hormone replacement therapy.
  • Thyroid cancer that comes back.

How can I prevent thyroid cancer?

Since doctors don't always know what causes thyroid cancer, you can't prevent most cases.

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Thyroid Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Thyroid cancer symptoms in females and males are very much alike.

Women tend to get thyroid cancer in middle age, while men get it more often in their 60s or 70s.

You may not notice thyroid cancer symptoms, especially in the early stages.

Your doctor may find a lump during a routine exam or on imaging test results for an unrelated health issue.

It's vital to see your doctor right away if you notice a lump on your throat.

What are the signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer?

Signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer may include:

  • A constant cough that's not from a cold.
  • Fatigue (feeling weak and tired).
  • Hoarseness or a change in your voice. Everyone loses their voice once in awhile, but a constant rasp could be a sign of thyroid cancer.
  • A lump in the neck.
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Problems swallowing.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Trouble breathing.

How do you diagnose thyroid cancer?

During a yearly physical exam, your doctor should check your neck for thyroid cancer signs. They will look for any swelling or lumps.

If your doctor suspects thyroid cancer, they may order one or more of these tests:

  • Thyroid ultrasound.
  • Biopsy of a suspicious thyroid nodule.
  • Radioiodine scan, which can detect thyroid cancer and if it has spread.
  • CT, MRI, and PET scans can also help see the extent of thyroid cancer and if it has spread.

Doctors don't use blood tests to find thyroid cancer. But blood tests can help show if your thyroid is working well. They can also help monitor thyroid cancer.

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How Do You Treat Thyroid Cancer?

The experts at UPMC bring a team approach to treating thyroid cancer.

We tailor treatment to your exact needs using high-tech imaging and cutting-edge surgical techniques. We also offer access to clinical trials for thyroid issues.

Treatment depends on what type of thyroid cancer you have and whether it's spread to other organs.

Your doctor may suggest one or more of the following.

Thyroid surgery

This is often the first step for treating all types of thyroid cancer.

Doctors may remove all or part of your thyroid, depending on the size of the tumor and whether it's spread. They may also remove lymph nodes if cancer cells are present.

Radioiodine treatment for thyroid cancer

After surgery, your doctor may suggest this treatment for follicular and papillary thyroid cancer.

It involves swallowing a pill or liquid containing radioactive iodine. The iodine destroys any remaining thyroid cancer cells.

Thyroid hormone therapy

This treatment replaces thyroid hormones after surgery to remove your thyroid gland. It helps prevent thyroid cancer from growing or coming back.

Other thyroid cancer treatments

If surgery and radiation don't stop the cancer, your doctor may use chemo or targeted therapy to treat the cancer.

Both are rare treatments for thyroid cancer.

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