Ask the Expert

What exactly is thyroid cancer and am I more at risk of developing it due to my family history?

Question: I recently learned that I have a family history of thyroid cancer. What exactly is thyroid cancer and am I more at risk of developing it due to my family history?

Answer: Thyroid cancer is cancer of the thyroid gland, an endocrine gland that secretes the thyroid hormone which essentially serves as the body’s master hormone and helps the body energize cells, stay warm, and keep our organs functioning properly. It is a butterfly-shaped organ located in the front part of the neck, over the windpipe, between the Adam’s apple and breastbone.

Compared to many other cancers, thyroid cancer is relatively uncommon. Still, there are more than 550,000 people in the US living with thyroid cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, and incidences are increasing among men and women.

Thyroid cancer can develop at any age and often presents in the form of nodules in or around the thyroid gland. While thyroid nodules are relatively common, only about 5% are cancerous. In diagnosing thyroid cancer we rely mainly on ultrasounds of the neck and biopsies of suspicious nodules. In addition to these nodules or lumps, other important signs include changes in voice, difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the neck. Fortunately, most thyroid cancer is detected during routine screening evaluations and before there are any signs or symptoms.

In the majority of cases, thyroid cancer is sporadic, which means we really do not know what causes it. However, a minority of thyroid cancer cases are known to be related to exposure to radiation and family history, according to the American Thyroid Association. So, individuals with a family history of thyroid cancer often have an increased risk of the disease.

The good news is that thyroid cancer generally grows slowly and is highly curable with surgery and radioactive iodine. In some instances, although much less common, radiation or chemotherapy may be used. The prognosis for patients with thyroid cancer is very good (especially in patients under 45 years of age) with a 5-year survival rate of 97%, according to the American Cancer Society.

Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns regarding your risk of thyroid cancer and schedule regular physical exams.

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