Health A to Z

Thyroid cancer

A type of cancer that forms in the thyroid gland, thyroid cancer is on the rise, and one of the most common cancers in young women.

thyroid cancer, thyroid cancer symptoms, thyroid cancer causes, thyroid cancer treatment

There are four different types of thyroid cancer: papillary; follicular; medullary and anaplastic. The majority of all thyroid cancers are papillary thyroid cancer which is slow growing and curable when diagnosed early. Anaplastic thyroid cancer, which makes up about two percent of all thyroid cancers, can grow and spread quickly.

Thyroid cancer causes Some people are more at risk for developing thyroid cancer, including people who are exposed to high levels of radiation from X-rays and other sources. Thyroid cancer and thyroid nodules (goiters) can run in families; people with a family history of goiters are at higher risk for developing thyroid cancer. Being over 45 is also a risk factor for thyroid cancer, as is getting too little iodine, a substance in iodized salt, in the diet.

Thyroid cancer symptoms The thyroid gland, located at the base of the throat beneath your voice box, is made up of two lobes, shaped like a butterfly. It makes thyroid hormone which affects weight, heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and calcitonin, which helps maintain healthy calcium levels in the body. Thyroid growths are often called nodules. Ninety percent of nodules are benign (not cancer).Thyroid cancer may have no symptoms, especially in the early stages, but as the cancer develops, signs include a lump in the front of the neck, hoarseness, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty breathing or swallowing or pain in the neck or throat.

Thyroid cancer diagnosis/tests Your doctor may discover a thyroid nodule or goiter during a routine physical examination. If you have symptoms of thyroid cancer that do not go away with a few weeks, see your doctor. She’ll conduct a physical exam and order blood tests to check the levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) in your blood (if you have too little or too much your thyroid is not working properly). She may refer you to an endocrinologist or other specialist for other tests, such as an ultrasound, thyroid scan and biopsy, either a fine-needle biopsy with a thin needle or a biopsy during surgery to remove the nodule.

Thyroid cancer treatment A combination of treatments may be used to treat thyroid cancer including surgery to remove the nodule or thyroid tissue; and radioactive iodine therapy. Rarely, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are needed. If your whole thyroid or part of your thyroid is removed during surgery, you will likely need to take thyroid hormone pills for life to replace the natural thyroid hormone.

Thyroid cancer prevention
Especially if you have a family history of thyroid cancer or thyroid nodules, routinely do a thyroid neck check to examine your own neck for lumps or enlargements that could be nodules or goiters. If medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) runs in your family, genetic testing is available to see if you are at greater risk for it.

Outside resources
Thyroid Foundation of Canada
Thyroid Cancer Information and Resources
Thyroid Neck Check