Each September brings Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month which is a worldwide recognition and educational awareness campaign designed to raise the knowledge about this type of cancer and funds to help find a cure. Beginning in 2000 by the Thyroid Cancer Survivor’s Association during one week of the month, it has now expanded to the entire month of September.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the throat. The gland uses iodine, a mineral found in some foods and in iodized salt, to help make several hormones that control heart rate, body temperature, metabolism, and the amount of calcium in the blood. According to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database, over fifty-five-thousand women and men living in the United States will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer and nearly three thousand will die of the disease in 2019. The five-year survival rate for this type of cancer is ninety-eight percent. There are four main types of thyroid cancer: papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer, medullary thyroid cancer, and anaplastic thyroid cancer. Most often, thyroid cancer affects more women than men. If men are diagnosed, it is often after the age of sixty. For women, diagnosis can happen at any age.
Follicular thyroid cancer is the second most diagnosed type of thyroid cancer, accounting for approximately ten percent of diagnoses. It begins in follicular cells and usually grows slowly. This type of cancer is also highly treatable if diagnosed early enough. Medullary thyroid cancer develops in the thyroid’s C cells, which make a hormone called calcitonin that helps maintain calcium levels in the blood. This rare cancer occurs in nearly everyone with a certain gene mutation. Blood testing can usually detect the presence of this altered gene. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a very rare and aggressive type of thyroid cancer that usually affects those over age 60. This type of cancer grows and spreads quickly and is difficult to treat.
What are the signs of thyroid cancer?
Thyroid cancer can cause any of the following signs or symptoms:
- A lump in the neck, sometimes growing quickly
- Swelling in the neck
- Pain in the front of the neck, sometimes going up to the ears
- Hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away
- Trouble swallowing
- Trouble breathing
- A constant cough that is not due to a cold
If you have any of these signs or symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away. Many of these symptoms can also be caused by non-cancerous conditions or even other cancers of the neck area. Lumps in the thyroid are common and are usually benign. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor so the cause can be found and treated, if needed, as early detection is always key.
What are the five top facts about thyroid cancer?
These are five very important things that you should know about thyroid cancer.
- Thyroid cancer may have no presenting symptoms. Some cases of thyroid cancer have zero symptoms and are only detected by x-rays or imaging results on the upper back or neck area. When there are symptoms of thyroid cancer it usually includes a lump or nodule on the neck, a feeling of fullness in the throat, hoarseness, and difficulty swallowing.
- Small papillary thyroid cancer may not require aggressive treatment. Usually, the treatment for thyroid cancer is removal of the gland, chased with radioactive therapy to kill any remnants of the cancer cells. For microcarcinomas, many specialists now say that surgery should be second to the watch-and-wait method. If the cancerous nodules are less than 4.0 centimeters in size, they may only require a lobectomy, which is removing half of the thyroid gland.
- It might not be thyroid cancer. A biopsy will give the definitive answer. If you have a suspicious nodule, the first step is usually to meet with your doctor, and if warranted, a fine needle aspiration biopsy will be done. If those test results show cancer cells, a thyroidectomy is typically done.
- Check with your doctor before you stop taking your thyroid hormone replacement when you are due for scans. Some imaging and testing in the past have required patients to stop taking their medications to have valid test results. This would force many patients into a hypothyroid period. Now, medications have been updated and certain prescriptions can now be taken without any breaks. Check with your doctor for details.
- Thyroid cancer patients have an increased risk of a secondary cancer. While many forms of thyroid cancer, especially in stages one, two and three, are highly survivable, many thyroid cancer patients are not often told they face a thirty-percent increased risk of developing a secondary cancer. This risk is the highest in the first year after treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer, prostate cancer, kidney cancer, kidney cancer, adrenal gland cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
- Over time, there are also elevated risks for these other types of cancer.
- salivary gland
- small intestine
- soft tissue sarcoma
- female breast
- parathyroid gland
Thyroid cancer patients should, therefore, be sure to focus attention on optimizing their health, and taking other cancer-preventative measures.
If you notice any of the signs or symptoms of thyroid cancer, do not hesitate to reach out to your medical care team to begin testing and treatment immediately.
National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database