Jayanthi Suppiah, MD, is an endocrinologist with Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: My primary care physician recommended I see an endocrinologist for a thyroid nodule. Does that mean I have cancer?
Answer: A thyroid nodule is a growth of tissue or fluid-filled cyst that forms a lump—sometimes large enough to look like a goiter on the neck. Chances of developing nodules increase as you get older; but, 90 to 95 percent of all thyroid nodules are benign or non-cancerous.
Your primary care physician is probably sending you to an endocrinologists because they are specialists within diseases related to the glands, such as the thyroid. Although it is rare, nodules can be large enough to cause pain or hoarseness, or get in the way of swallowing or breathing so they should be further evaluated.
An endocrinologist most likely will order lab tests to learn whether your thyroid is functioning as normal tissue or hyper-functioning. They could also request further testing, such as a thyroid ultrasound or a biopsy to remove cells/fluid samples which will help identify any cancerous or suspicious nodules.
Treatment will depend on the type of nodule and what is found in test results. Surgical removal of the thyroid is recommended for nodules that are cancerous. Hyper-functioning nodules are almost never cancerous, but they may produce too much thyroid hormone and cause hyperthyroidism, which can cause you to have an irregularly fast heartbeat, increased sweating or irritability/nervousness. Hyper-functioning nodules can be surgically removed or treated with radioactive iodine.
If your nodule does not show any symptoms, and is not growing in size, typically your physician will request a visit every 6 to 12 months for monitoring. At your next visit, your endocrinologist may request a physical exam and/or a thyroid ultrasound with biopsy if the nodule has grown. Even if a biopsy is benign, surgical removal may be necessary for nodules getting larger in size and causing discomfort.