The thyroid gland is a part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system produces hormones that regulate the normal functions of the body. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the throat. It has a left and right lobe. The isthmus is the part of the thyroid gland where the lobes connect. The thyroid makes the hormone thyroxine, which helps the body regulate:
- blood pressure
- heart rate
- body temperature
- body weight
Thyroid cancer is the most common type of endocrine cancer. Diagnosis is on the rise in the United States. This may be because it has become easier to find the disease.
Symptoms of thyroid cancer
Early thyroid cancer has no symptoms. You won’t be able to feel your thyroid gland if it’s healthy. As thyroid cancer progresses, the following symptoms may occur:
- a lump in the throat
- a cough
- pain in the throat and neck
- difficulty swallowing
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Talk to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
Risk factors for thyroid cancer
Risk factors for thyroid cancer include:
- having a family history of thyroid cancer
- being a woman
- having a history of breast cancer
- having a history of radiation exposure
Age is also a risk factor. Thyroid cancer is most likely to occur after age 40.
Types of thyroid cancer and incidence
Thyroid cancers are relatively uncommon. In the United States, it’s the tenth most common type of cancer. It’s about one-tenth as common as breast cancer, and one-fifth as common as lung cancer.
Thyroid cancers are classified according to the appearance of the cancerous cells. Cancerous cells that look like healthy cells are called well-differentiated cells. Well-differentiated cells grow at a slower rate than undifferentiated cells.
The types of thyroid cancer include:
Papillary thyroid cancer
Papillary thyroid cancer is a well-differentiated form of thyroid cancer. It’s the most common type. It’s most often seen in women of childbearing age. Papillary thyroid cancer is less dangerous than the other types. It spreads slower, and it’s very treatable.
Medullary thyroid cancer
Medullary thyroid cancer is another well-differentiated form of thyroid cancer. Some cases of medullary thyroid cancer have a genetic component. This can cause it to occur as part of a syndrome of endocrine gland cancers. Cases without a genetic component are said to be “sporadic.”
Medullary thyroid cancer arises in non-thyroid cells located in the thyroid gland. It’s treated differently than other forms of thyroid cancer.
Follicular thyroid cancer
Follicular thyroid cancer is the type of thyroid cancer most likely to spread and recur. Hurthle cell cancer is a type of follicular cancer.
Anaplastic thyroid cancer
Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most aggressive form of thyroid cancer. It’s rare and difficult to treat.
This is a rare type of thyroid cancer. It begins in immune cells located within the thyroid gland.
Diagnosing thyroid cancer
The results of a physical exam or laboratory test can reveal the presence of thyroid cancer. An examination of the neck may reveal a small or large mass in the thyroid. Lymph nodes may also be enlarged.
Lab tests and procedures used to diagnose thyroid cancer include:
- thyroid function tests
- a thyroglobulin test, which is used for papillary or follicular cancers
- an ultrasound of the thyroid
- a thyroid scan
- a thyroid biopsy
- calcium level in the blood
- phosphorous level in the blood
- calcitonin level in the blood
What is the long-term outlook for people with thyroid cancer?
People diagnosed in the early stages of thyroid cancer generally respond well to treatment and go into remission. Some types of thyroid cancer have a higher rate of recurrence than others.
Make sure you go to routine follow-up appointments after you’re in remission. Doctors will need to check you for the rest of your life for signs of recurrent cancer. Your doctor will also want to routinely check that the amount of thyroid replacement hormones you’re taking is correct.
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- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014, April 14). Thyroid cancer
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- Tumor grade. (2013, May 3)