Thyroid Cancer

The thyroid is a gland shaped like a butterfly that is located in the front of the throat. It produces thyroid hormones that help to regulate the body’s metabolism (internal chemical processes). Thyroid cancer is highly treatable, with a 99% cure rate.

Doctors identify thyroid cancer in more than 62,500 people per year in the United States. With advanced diagnostic techniques, doctors are finding it more often, with excellent treatment success.

Thyroid Cancer: Expert Care at Henry Ford

We have offered expert diagnosis and advanced treatments for thyroid cancer since the 1970s, when we helped to develop thyroid needle biopsy, which still is the standard method of thyroid tumor diagnosis without surgery.

Surgery on the thyroid gland and parathyroid glands requires a high degree of skill because the throat tissues are delicate. Our thyroid surgeons at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute perform more than 500 thyroidectomies each year, making them the most experienced in Michigan.

Patients come to Henry Ford for advanced treatment of thyroid cancer because of our high degree of expertise, including:

  • Skilled surgeons: Our surgeons have the experience to successfully perform sophisticated thyroid cancer diagnosis and surgery, including robot-assisted and minimally invasive procedures. Meet our team.
  • Expertise in genetic counseling and treatment: Some types of thyroid cancer, such as medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), may be passed down through families. We offer advanced genetic testing and counseling. Find out more about thyroid cancer diagnosis.
  • Coordinated care: At Henry Ford, we work together seamlessly across departments, so you can be confident that we offer collaborative, coordinated care between cancer surgeons, endocrinologists (doctors specializing in the hormone system, including the thyroid), speech and swallowing therapists, and emotional support for you and your loved ones. Read more about thyroid cancer treatment.

Risk Factors for Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer occurs most often in people under age 55, with 2% of cases occurring in children and teens. Women are much more likely than men to develop thyroid cancers.

Most of the four types of thyroid cancer are relatively easy to cure with current treatment. The four types are:

  • Papillary cancer: Papillary tumors make up 80% of thyroid cancers. They grow slowly and are rarely fatal, although some subtypes grow faster.
  • Follicular cancer or Hurthle cell cancer: Hurthle cell cancer is actually a subtype of follicular tumors, which appear most often in places where people do not get enough iodine. They make up about 1 in 10 thyroid cancers.
  • Medullary cancer: Medullary tumors make up about 4% of thyroid cancers. Some types are inherited, while others are not.
  • Anaplastic cancer: Anaplastic is the least common type of thyroid tumor, and the most difficult to cure with treatments that are available now.

People who are diagnosed with thyroid cancer may have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Being female: About 3 times as many women as men are diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Women are diagnosed at younger ages, too.
  • Radiation exposure: Being exposed to radiation to the head and neck as a child increases the risk of thyroid cancer.
  • Hereditary conditions (conditions that biological family members share, that can make certain types of cancer more likely): We offer cancer genetics counseling for people who may have these conditions:
    • Familial medullary thyroid cancer
    • Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A syndrome
    • Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B syndrome
  • A diet low in iodine: In the United States, most people have enough iodine in their diets, but in some parts of the world iodine deficiencies contribute to thyroid cancer risk.

Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

Most people see their physician for a thyroid cancer diagnosis because of a lump in the throat or neck. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to schedule an appointment with an experienced head and neck cancer specialist for an accurate thyroid cancer diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer include:

  • A lump or swelling in the neck – sometimes fast-growing
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Throat or neck pain, sometimes felt up to the ears
  • Hoarseness or voice changes

Thyroid Cancer Diagnosis at Henry Ford

The first step in thyroid cancer diagnosis is a physical examination. Your doctor will look for swelling or lumps on your neck or throat.

To examine parts of the throat that are not easy to see or feel from the outside, a physician who suspects a thyroid tumor may use tests including:

  • Laryngoscopy: Using small mirrors or a tube with a light and camera, we can examine your throat and your larynx (voice box). Your doctor may suggest a numbing spray on the back of the throat first.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy takes a sample of suspicious cells for a laboratory to examine and determine if the cells might be cancerous. Our laboratory is highly experienced in diagnosing thyroid cancer.
  • Blood tests: Our laboratory may study a small blood sample to measure the amount of certain hormones and other substances, such as calcium, in the blood.
  • Imaging, such as ultrasound, X-ray, MRI or CT scan: We may order tests to take pictures of the inside of your body. These tests might include an ultrasound study (using sound waves), a CT (computed tomography) scan, X-rays or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
  • Radioiodine scan: We use this test to check whether a lump may be cancer, or to learn if cancer has spread in a person who has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. You will swallow or have an injection with a small amount of radioactive iodine, and then we use a special camera to see where thyroid cells pick up the iodine. This scan is not used for medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) because MTC cells do not pick up iodine.
  • PET scan: To learn whether cancer has spread in your body, we may order a PET (positron emission tomography) scan. This test uses a mild radioactive substance to check the function of your cells and tissues.

Staging Thyroid Cancer

To effectively diagnose thyroid cancer, doctors will identify the cancer’s stage, or the size of the tumor and whether it has spread. The stage helps doctors choose the best treatment option for your unique needs.

Doctors classify thyroid cancer stages in groups based on the tumor type and the patient’s age:

  • Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45:
    • Stage I: The tumor may be any size. It may have spread from the thyroid to other nearby tissue or lymph nodes, but it has not spread elsewhere in the body.
    • Stage II: The tumor has spread beyond the thyroid to other areas of the body. It may have spread to lymph nodes.
  • Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients age 45 and older:
    • Stage I: Cancer has formed in the thyroid, and the tumor is 2 centimeters (about ¾ inch) or smaller.
    • Stage II: The tumor is still found only in the thyroid. It may be larger than 2 centimeters (about ¾ inch) but it is smaller than 4 centimeters (about 1½ inches).
    • Stage III: The tumor is larger than 4 centimeters (about 1½ inches). It has spread into nearby tissues or nearby lymph nodes.
    • Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Doctors classify Stage IV tumors as IVA, IVB or IVC, depending on their size and where cancer cells are located.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) – patients of any age:
    • Stage 0: No tumor has formed. Physicians can identify stage 0 medullary thyroid cancer with screening tests.
    • Stage I: Cancer has formed in the thyroid, and the tumor is 2 centimeters (about ¾ inch) or smaller.
    • Stage II: The tumor is only in the thyroid and is 2 centimeters (about ¾ inch) or smaller, or it has spread outside the thyroid, to nearby tissues, but not to lymph nodes.
    • Stage III: The tumor has spread into lymph nodes and may have spread to nearby tissues.
    • Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Doctors classify Stage IV tumors as IVA, IVB or IVC, depending on their size and where cancer cells are located.
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer – patients may be any age:
    • Stage IV: Doctors always classify anaplastic tumors as Stage IV. It usually has spread outside the thyroid by the time doctors identify it. Doctors classify tumors as Stage IVA, IVB or IVC, depending on their size and where cancer cells are located.

Advanced Genetic Screening and Counseling

In some cases, thyroid cancer may be passed down in families. In these cases, we will talk with you about genetic screening by our advanced genetics laboratory.

In families with familial medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), doctors can remove the thyroid gland and prevent additional cancers from forming. Throughout the process, we will help you and your family members navigate any additional screening or care you may need, as part of our care for the whole patient. Learn more about our cancer genetics.

Options for Treatment

Learn more about the treatment options for head and neck cancers

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