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Risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options for thyroid cancer.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the throat that helps regulate the body’s metabolism. The symptoms of thyroid cancer can affect your weight, energy level, and quality of life.
Our team can diagnose and treat all types of thyroid cancer.
What is thyroid cancer?
Thyroid cancer is becoming more common in the United States. Although thyroid nodules are a common condition, only about 5 percent of these nodules are cancerous.
The good news is that thyroid cancer is highly treatable. It has a cure rate of 99 percent. If thyroid cancer comes back after the initial treatment, we call that recurrent thyroid cancer.
Most of the different types of thyroid cancer are relatively easy to cure with our current treatment methods. There are four different types of thyroid cancer:
Papillary thyroid cancer
This type comprises 80 percent of thyroid cancers. Most papillary thyroid cancers grow slowly and are only rarely fatal, although some subtypes of this cancer grow faster.
Follicular thyroid cancers
These types of cancer most often appear in regions where people do not get enough iodine. They account for about one in 10 thyroid cancers. One subtype of this type of cancer is Hurthle-cell thyroid cancer, which affects a particular type of thyroid cells.
Medullary thyroid cancer
This type accounts for about 4 percent of thyroid cancers. Some types of this cancer can be inherited, while some cannot. If you have medullary thyroid cancer, we offer cancer genetic screening to determine if your family members also may be at risk for the disease.
Anaplastic thyroid cancer
This is the least common form of thyroid cancer. It’s also the most difficult to cure with the treatments we have available now. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is an aggressive form of the disease that we have to treat aggressively.
Risk factors and common thyroid cancer symptoms
Thyroid cancer is most common in people under age 55. About 2 percent of cases occur in children and teens. People with thyroid cancer may have one or more of the following risk factors:
- Being female -- about three times as many women have thyroid cancer as compared to men, and women tend to be diagnosed at younger ages
- Diet low in iodine -- this is more of a problem outside the United States
- Family history of medullary thyroid cancer
- Family history of multiple endocrine neoplasia 2A syndrome or multiple endocrine neoplasia 2B syndrome (cancers of the endocrine system)
- Radiation exposure -- being exposed to radiation to the head and neck as a child increases thyroid cancer risk
Symptoms of thyroid cancer may include:
- Lump or swelling in the neck that may grow quickly
- Trouble breathing or speaking
- Throat or neck pain, sometimes radiating up to the ears
- Hoarseness or changes in your voice
If your doctor suspects thyroid cancer, you may need to see our head and neck cancer specialists for screening and diagnostic tests. These tests will let us know for sure if you have thyroid cancer and, if so, what type you have and how advanced it is. This information allows us to create a personalized treatment plan.
What are my thyroid cancer treatment options?
We treat many head and neck tumors, including thyroid tumors, with a combination of the following:
The throat tissues are delicate, and surgery in this area requires a high level of skill. Our thyroid surgeons perform more than 500 thyroidectomies, or surgical removals of the thyroid, each year. Your surgery may involve removing all or part of the thyroid gland, as well as nearby lymph nodes.
We use the least-invasive surgical options. Minimally invasive surgery is safer, with less scarring, and patients have an easier recovery process and a faster return to their normal activities. Your surgery may include:
- Robotic “facelift” surgery to avoid scarring -- We’re one of only a few centers in the United States to perform thyroid surgery using small incisions, typically used for facelifts, that eliminate visible scars.
- Transoral robotic surgery (TORS) -- This is an alternative to traditional open surgery that grants your surgeon greater precision and control.
- Ultrasound-guided surgery -- we use thyroid ultrasound to guide our work.
- Monitoring to protect larynx nerves -- we monitor and protect the nerves that lead to the larynx (voice box) during surgery.
- Outpatient procedures -- patients usually can go home after surgery and won’t have to stay in the hospital overnight.
Other thyroid cancer treatments
Your doctor may recommend additional treatment options for some forms of thyroid cancer. One option is thyroid hormone therapy. You may need medication to stop your body from producing thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH, to reduce the risk of cancer growing or returning. You also may need thyroid hormone-replacement therapy after a thyroidectomy.
We also use certain types of medications to slow down or prevent the growth of thyroid tumors. These medications, including vandetanib and sorafenib, are called tyrosine-kinase inhibitors. We may also use a treatment called radioactive iodine therapy.
In radioactive iodine therapy, a patient swallows a small amount of the element iodine in radioactive form. Thyroid cancer cells absorb the iodine, and the radiation kills the cancer cells. We may recommend radioactive iodine therapy:
- After surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells
- To treat thyroid cancer that has spread
- To treat thyroid cancer that returns after treatment
What happens if my thyroid cancer returns after treatment?
Thyroid cancer that returns after the initial treatment is called recurrent thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer can return years or decades after your treatment.
We’ll monitor you carefully for signs that your thyroid cancer may be returning once you’ve finished treatment. We use a variety of tests to determine if you have recurrent thyroid cancer. These tests can include:
- Blood tests
- Physical examinations
- Thyroid ultrasounds
If our doctors find that you have recurrent thyroid cancer, you may need additional tests. These tests give us information about your cancer and will help you and your doctor decide what treatment options are best. Some of the treatment options for recurrent thyroid cancer include surgery or radioactive iodine therapy.