Thyroid Cancer

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According to the American Cancer Society, about 45,000 people are diagnosed with thyroid cancer each year in the United States. About 75 percent of these are women, making it the eighth-most-common cancer in women. Thyroid cancer is seen most often in adults, with two-thirds of the cases occurring between ages 20 and 55.

Although thyroid cancer accounts for about 1 percent of all cancers, it is becoming more common. At least 450,000 people in the United States have completed treatment or are living with thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer is usually a slow-growing cancer. It is one of the least dangerous cancers in most cases, and the five-year survival rate for thyroid cancer is almost 97%.

At Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, our physicians who treat thyroid cancer are some of the most skilled and experienced in the nation. Through a multidisciplinary approach, they work with their team of experts - including medical oncologists, surgeons and radiation oncologists - to develop an individual treatment plan based on each patient’s unique needs.

Learn More About Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer begins in the thyroid gland, which is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck at the base of the throat. The thyroid is part of the body's endocrine system, a system of glands that control hormones in the body. It normally weighs less than an ounce, and it cannot be seen or felt in most people; however it has an important function. The thyroid makes hormones that help regulate the body's heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and metabolism (the breakdown of food to create energy).

The thyroid has two halves, or lobes, one on each side of the neck. It wraps around the trachea (windpipe) just under the larynx (Adam's apple). A thin strip of tissue known as the isthmus connects the two halves. Thyroid gland cells are the only cells in the body that absorb and retain iodine. Iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones.

Two kinds of cells are found in the thyroid:

  • Follicular cells are the most common. They produce thyroid hormone, which is important for growth, mental function and helping the body create energy.
  • Parafollicular cells (also known as C cells) produce a small amount of the hormone calcitonin, which has a minor role to control calcium metabolism. Most parafollicular cells are in the upper third of each lobe.

Papillary, follicular and anaplastic thyroid cancers begin in the follicular cells. Papillary thyroid cancer and follicular thyroid cancers are the most common types of thyroid cancer and are sometimes referred to together as differentiated thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer is grouped by the type of thyroid cells where the cancer begins. There are 5 different types including papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer, hurthle cell carcinoma, medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) and anaplastic thyroid cancer.

Learn more about the types of thyroid cancer 

What are the causes and risk factors for thyroid cancer?

Anything that increases your chance of getting thyroid cancer is a risk factor. Established risk factors for thyroid cancer include:

  • Age: Two-thirds of thyroid cancer cases occur between ages 20 and 55
  • Gender: Women are three times as likely as men to develop thyroid cancer. Papillary thyroid cancer is found most often in women of childbearing age
  • Exposure to radiation: including X-rays, especially during childhood
  • Inherited disorders: Familial medullary thyroid cancer usually is caused by an inherited mutation in the RET gene. If your parent has the gene mutation, you have a 50% chance of having it too. If you inherit the gene, you are likely to develop the cancer. Other types of thyroid cancer also may be caused by diseases that run in families.
  • Iodine deficiency: This is uncommon in the United States, where iodine often is added to table salt. In other areas of the world, especially inland regions without fish and shellfish in the diet, iodine levels are sometimes too low.

No common behavioral risk factors for thyroid cancer have been identified at this time. If you are concerned about inherited family syndromes that cause thyroid cancer, we offer advanced genetic testing to let you know your risk.

Not everyone with risk factors gets thyroid cancer. However, if you have risk factors, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your doctor.

Are there screening tests for thyroid cancer?

Cancer screening exams are important medical tests done when you’re healthy and don’t have symptoms. They help find cancer at its earliest stage, when the chances for curing it are best. Unfortunately, standardized screening tests have not been shown to improve thyroid cancer outcomes.

Although thyroid cancer sometimes has no symptoms, many tumors are found in the early stages when patients or their doctors find lumps or nodules in their throats. Some thyroid cancer screening guidelines recommend you examine your neck carefully twice a year. Be sure your doctor includes a cancer-related exam in your annual exam.

If other people in your family have or had familial medullary thyroid cancer, you and your children should have a thyroid cancer screening blood test as early as possible to find out if you have the gene that causes this cancer. If you or your children have the gene, your doctor may suggest surgically removing the thyroid gland to lower the risk of cancer. More than 90% of people with the gene develop thyroid cancer.

When thyroid cancer is found early, you have a higher chance for successful treatment. Unfortunately, thyroid cancer often has few or no signs. When it does have symptoms, they vary from person to person. Thyroid cancer is much more common in women than men but the specific symptoms for women and men are similar.

Signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer may include:

  • Lump or nodule in the front of the neck
  • Enlargement of the thyroid or swelling in the neck
  • Pain in the front of the neck that may stretch to the ears
  • Change in voice or hoarseness
  • Breathing problems, especially the feeling that you are breathing through a straw
  • Cough that does not go away and is not caused by a cold
  • Cough with blood
  • Swallowing problems

While some of these symptoms can also appear with late stage thyroid cancer, these symptoms do not always mean that you have thyroid cancer. However, if you believe you are experiencing any early symptoms or warning signs of thyroid cancer, it is important to discuss your symptoms with your doctor, since they may signal other health problems.

 

Blood tests, imaging exams and even surgical procedures are used to check for cancer.

Learn more about thyroid cancer diagnosis 

When you have thyroid cancer, it is important to be treated by experts with a high level of expertise. Our program is one of the most active, which means Banner MD Anderson’s physicians are some of the most skilled and experienced in the nation.

If you are diagnosed with thyroid cancer, your doctor will discuss the best options to treat it. This depends on several factors, including:

  • Type of thyroid cancer
  • Size of the nodule
  • Your age and health
  • Stage of cancer

Your treatment for thyroid cancer will be customized to your particular needs. In most cases of differentiated (papillary and follicular) thyroid cancer, two or more of these methods may be used. Most patients with medullary thyroid cancer are treated with surgery only. Patients with anaplastic thyroid cancer may be treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, or they may be candidates for a clinical trial.

Surgery for Thyroid Cancer

Surgery is often part of the treatment for thyroid cancer. Like all surgeries, thyroid cancer surgery is most successful when performed by a specialist with a great deal of experience in the particular procedure. For some patients, robotic surgery and minimally invasive approaches may help maintain appearance.

Radiation Therapy for Thyroid Cancer

Another common thyroid cancer treatment (without surgery) is radiation therapy or radioactive iodine therapy. This type of therapy cannot be used to treat anaplastic or medullary thyroid cancer.

Thyroid Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Like any cancer treatment, thyroid cancer treatments may cause some side effects. These side effects will vary based on your treatment options and other factors.