According to the National Cancer Institute, there are over 56,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in the US each year, and the majority of those diagnosed are papillary thyroid cancer the most common type of thyroid cancer. Females are more likely to have thyroid cancer at a ratio of 3:1. Thyroid cancer can occur in any age group, although it is most common after age 30, and its aggressiveness increases significantly in older patients. Approximately 1.2 percent of all men and women will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer during the course of their lifetime.
This article will highlight some common thyroid cancer signs and symptoms as well as thyroid cancer prognosis and treatments.
Visit our Patients' Guide to Thyroid Cancer for more comprehensive information on types, causes, diagnosis, and treatments for the different types of thyroid cancer.
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Thyroid cancer frequently presents without any symptom whatsoever. When a symptom does present, the most common symptom is a lump in the neck. Less commonly, patients may have symptoms including hoarseness or change in voice. Symptoms of pain are very uncommon except in inflammatory conditions of the thyroid and the rarer of thyroid cancers called medullary thyroid cancer.
Although as many as 75% of the population will have thyroid nodules, the vast majority are benign. Young people usually don't have thyroid nodules. However, children and adolescents with thyroid nodules are most commonly benign, but the overall risk of thyroid cancer is markedly higher than in the adult population. As people age, they are more likely to develop a thyroid nodule. By the time we are 80 years of age, 90% of us will have at least one thyroid nodule.
Fewer than 1% of all thyroid nodules are malignant (cancerous). Thyroid nodules are most commonly identified due to routine physical examination or x-ray studies obtained for other reasons. The below MRI study was obtained for a patient complaining of neck pain following a motor vehicle accident. The red arrow points to a right thyroid mass (the right and left sides are reversed in x-rays) which was confirmed to be papillary thyroid cancer by ultrasound-guided needle biopsy.
You can read more information about thyroid nodules and their potential to be malignant in our articles below:
Talk to your doctor about any questions you have about thyroid cancer signs and symptoms.
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There are 4 main types of thyroid cancer, and some are more common than others.
Thyroid cancer type and incidence:
Most thyroid cancers are very curable. In fact, the most common types of thyroid cancer (papillary and follicular thyroid cancer) are the most curable. In younger patients, less than 50 years of age, both papillary and follicular cancers have a more than 98% cure rate if treated appropriately. Both papillary and follicular thyroid cancers are typically treated with at least complete removal of the lobe of the thyroid gland that harbors cancer. A thyroid gland that has a thyroid cancer nodule within it and has multiple other nodules in both sides of the thyroid or when cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck is a clear indication for complete removal of the thyroid gland.
Only expert thyroid surgeons should perform thyroid surgery for nodules that may be cancers or patients with known thyroid malignancy. When expert evaluation of patients with thyroid nodules and cancers combined with expert thyroid surgery provides patients with the best outcomes.
The bottom line is that most thyroid cancers are papillary thyroid cancer, and this is one of the most curable cancers of all cancers. More than 98% of patients with papillary thyroid cancer remain alive after five years. Unfortunately, nearly 11% of patients with papillary thyroid cancer continue to have thyroid cancer following their initial thyroid cancer surgery. The most important thing for a patient with a new diagnosis of thyroid cancer is to not be in a rush, take a deep breath, and seek evaluation and care by thyroid cancer experts.
Medullary thyroid cancer is significantly less common but has a worse prognosis. Medullary cancers tend to spread to large numbers of lymph nodes very early on and therefore require a much more extensive operation than the more localized thyroid cancers, such as papillary and follicular thyroid cancer. Extensive means more thorough and a wider or broader area. However, in almost all expert thyroid surgery, all major nerves, blood vessels, and muscles are spared!
Medullary thyroid cancer may also be a genetically inherited cancer and special testing and counseling are indicated for patients with medullary thyroid cancer to determine whether there is a family risk associated with this type of cancer.
Medullary thyroid cancer requires complete thyroid removal plus a dissection to remove the lymph nodes of the front and often along the sides of the neck.
The least common type of thyroid cancer is anaplastic thyroid cancer, which has a very poor prognosis. Unless diagnosed early and found during a thyroidectomy, most cases of anaplastic thyroid cancer lead to a rapid and untimely death. Anaplastic thyroid cancer tends to be found after it has spread, and is one of the most incurable cancers known to mankind.
The only chance for cure, today, in anaplastic thyroid cancer is when the complete removal of the tumor can be obtained and there is no evidence of spread to other sites in the body (distant spread). This situation is rarely found. Anaplastic thyroid cancer patients require chemotherapy and radiation therapy unlike other types of thyroid cancer. New evolving therapies show some promise in these most aggressive cancers.
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c is unique among cancers. In fact, thyroid cells are unique among all cells of the human body. They are the only cells that have the ability to absorb iodine. Iodine is required for thyroid cells to produce thyroid hormone, so they absorb it out of the bloodstream and concentrate it inside the cell.
The most common thyroid cancers are made up of cells that retain this ability to absorb and concentrate iodine. This provides a perfect "targeted" strategy.
Radioactive Iodine is given to the patients with certain types of thyroid cancers called “differentiated thyroid cancers” following complete removal of their thyroid gland. These differentiated thyroid cancers include the most common thyroid cancers of papillary thyroid cancer and follicular thyroid cancers. If there are any normal thyroid cells or any remaining thyroid cancer cells in the patient's body (and any thyroid cancer cells retaining this ability to absorb iodine), then these cells will absorb and concentrate the radioactive iodine.
Since most other cells of our bodies cannot absorb the toxic iodine, they remain unharmed. The thyroid cancer cells, however, will concentrate the poisonous radioactive iodine within themselves and the radioactivity destroys the cell from within—no sickness, hair loss, nausea, diarrhea, or pain. Some normal cells such as your saliva glands, tear glands, breast tissue and bone marrow also will absorb some iodine and receive some potential risk of damage.
Less than twenty percent of patients with papillary or follicular thyroid cancer need or may benefit from radioactive iodine therapy. Indications for radioactive iodine treatment are based on findings at the time of the operation and final review of the microscopic findings of cancer. Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers which have spread outside of the thyroid gland itself spread to lymph nodes, or grown into blood vessels are reasons to treat with iodine therapy. Without such findings, radioactive iodine is not indicated.
Patients with medullary thyroid cancer do not need iodine therapy because medullary cancers never absorb the radioactive iodine. Newer targeted therapies have been developed for medullary thyroid cancer and have been shown to be beneficial when medullary thyroid cancers have spread to distant sites.
Small isolated papillary and follicular thyroid cancers are often cured with simple (complete) surgical therapy alone. This varies from patient to patient and from cancer to cancer. This decision will be made between the surgeon, the patient, and the referring endocrinologist. Remember, a single dose of radioactive iodine therapy is extremely safe. If you need it, take it.
The entire thyroid cancer must be surgically removed sometimes with just partial removal of the thyroid gland or total removal of the thyroid gland. With the use of high-resolution ultrasound before your operation and by expert inspection by your surgeon during your operation, the lymph nodes in the neck are examined to see if lymph nodes also need to be removed.
Thyroid cancer treatment typically costs starts from $2700. for treatment usually you need surgery and radioactive iodine treatment, which is often recommended for thyroid cancer.
In stage 4, the tumor has spread into neck tissues under the skin, the trachea, esophagus, the larynx, or distant parts of the body such as the lungs or bones. The 10-year outlook significantly declines at this point: Only 21 percent of people diagnosed at this stage are alive after 10 years. Most thyroid cancers are very curable. In fact, the most common types of thyroid cancer (papillary and follicular thyroid cancer) are the most curable. In younger patients, less than 50 years of age, both papillary and follicular cancers have a more than 98% cure rate if treated appropriately.
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Unless diagnosed early and found during a thyroidectomy, most cases of anaplastic thyroid cancer lead to a rapid and untimely death. Anaplastic thyroid cancer tends to be found after it has spread, and is one of the most incurable cancers known to mankind. Overall, the 5-year survival rate for people with thyroid cancer is 98%. However, survival rates are based on many factors, including the specific type of thyroid cancer and stage of disease. If the cancer is located only in the thyroid, it is called localized thyroid cancer.
Most thyroid cancers are very curable. In fact, the most common types of thyroid cancer (papillary and follicular thyroid cancer) are the most curable. Treatment for thyroid cancer depends on the type of thyroid cancer you have and how far it has spread.
The main treatments are:
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Your thyroid cancer treatment options depend on the type and stage of your thyroid cancer, your overall health, and your preferences.
Most thyroid cancers can be cured with treatment.
Treatment may not be needed right away
Very small thyroid cancers that have a low risk of spreading in the body might not need treatment right away. Instead, you might consider active surveillance with frequent monitoring of the cancer. Your doctor might recommend blood tests and an ultrasound exam of your neck once or twice per year.
In some people, the cancer might never grow and never require treatment. In others, growth may eventually be detected and treatment can be initiated.
Most people with thyroid cancer undergo surgery to remove the thyroid. Which operation your doctor might recommend depends on the type of thyroid cancer, the size of the cancer, whether the cancer has spread beyond the thyroid and the results of an ultrasound exam of the entire thyroid gland.
Operations used to treat thyroid cancer include:
Thyroid surgery carries a risk of bleeding and infection. Damage to your parathyroid glands also can occur during surgery, which can lead to low calcium levels in your body.
There's also a risk that the nerves connected to your vocal cords might not work normally after surgery, which can cause vocal cord paralysis, hoarseness, voice changes or difficulty breathing. Treatment can improve or reverse nerve problems.
After thyroidectomy, you may take the thyroid hormone medication levothyroxine (Levoxyl, Synthroid, others) for life.
This medication has two benefits: It supplies the missing hormone your thyroid would normally produce, and it suppresses the production of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from your pituitary gland. High TSH levels could conceivably stimulate any remaining cancer cells to grow.
Radioactive iodine treatment uses large doses of a form of iodine that's radioactive.
Radioactive iodine treatment is often used after thyroidectomy to destroy any remaining healthy thyroid tissue, as well as microscopic areas of thyroid cancer that weren't removed during surgery. Radioactive iodine treatment may also be used to treat thyroid cancer that recurs after treatment or that spreads to other areas of the body.
Radioactive iodine treatment comes as a capsule or liquid that you swallow. The radioactive iodine is taken up primarily by thyroid cells and thyroid cancer cells, so there's a low risk of harming other cells in your body.
Side effects may include:
Most of the radioactive iodine leaves your body in your urine in the first few days after treatment. You'll be given instructions for precautions you need to take during that time to protect other people from the radiation. For instance, you may be asked to temporarily avoid close contact with other people, especially children and pregnant women.
Radiation therapy can also be given externally using a machine that aims high-energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, at precise points on your body (external beam radiation therapy). During treatment, you lie still on a table while a machine moves around you.
External beam radiation therapy may be recommended if surgery isn't an option and your cancer continues to grow after radioactive iodine treatment. Radiation therapy may also be recommended after surgery if there's an increased risk that your cancer will recur.
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is typically given as an infusion through a vein. The chemicals travel throughout your body, killing quickly growing cells, including cancer cells.
Chemotherapy isn't commonly used in the treatment of thyroid cancer, but it's sometimes recommended for people with anaplastic thyroid cancer. Chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy.
Targeted drug treatments focus on specific abnormalities present within cancer cells. By blocking these abnormalities, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die.
Targeted drug therapy for thyroid cancer targets the signals that tell cancer cells to grow and divide. It's typically used in advanced thyroid cancer.
Alcohol ablation involves injecting small thyroid cancers with alcohol using imaging such as ultrasound to ensure precise placement of the injection. This procedure causes thyroid cancers to shrink.
Alcohol ablation might be an option if your cancer is very small and surgery isn't an option. It's also sometimes used to treat cancer that recurs in the lymph nodes after surgery.
Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care.
Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Increasingly, it's being offered early in the course of cancer treatment.
When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.
Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve quality of life for people with cancer and their families.
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An external-beam radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given oven a set period of time. When used to treat thyroid cancer, radiation therapy is usually given as outpatient therapy, either in a hospital or clinic, 5 days a week for about 5 to 6 weeks.
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