What Are the Signs of Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid cancer cells are tricky little fiends. They can masquerade as normal thyroid tissue, which is one of the qualities that makes them dangerous. Here we will talk about signs of thyroid cancer, the types, and treatments.
What is Thyroid Cancer?
In most people, the thyroid cannot be seen or felt, even when it is healthy. It’s found at the front part of the neck and is a gland that is shaped like a butterfly. As cells mutate or start to grow out of control, they are considered cancer cells. When these abnormal cells originate in the thyroid, it is called thyroid cancer, but like other cancers, thyroid cancer can spread to other parts of the body. A majority of thyroid cancers are differentiated cancers. That is to say, their cells resemble normal thyroid tissue.
There are Five Main Types of Thyroid Cancer:
- Papillary thyroid cancer: develops in the follicular cells
- Follicular thyroid cancer: develops in the follicular cells
- Hurthle cell cancer: develops in a certain type of follicular cell
- Medullary thyroid cancer: develops in the C cells
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer: develops from differentiated thyroid cancer or a benign thyroid tumor
What Does the Thyroid Do?
That little gland is responsible for producing hormones that help regulate your metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. There are two main types of cells in the thyroid:
- Follicular cells that use iodine from the blood to make thyroid hormones
- C cells which make a hormone that helps control calcium use in the body (calcitonin)
Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer
Several symptoms of thyroid cancer can be due to a number of other health conditions, including the common cold. If you are worried about any symptoms, schedule some time with your doctor to assess your health. Thyroid cancer may show up as:
- Pain in the throat or front of the neck that may radiate up to the ears
- A lump near the Adam’s apple; in some cases the lump grows quickly. While a lump may be a cause for concern, lumps located here are common and usually benign.
- Swelling in the neck
- Trouble breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- A cough you cannot shake that is not attributed to a cold
- Persistent hoarseness of the voice
Thyroid Cancer Causes
An exact cause of most thyroid cancers is unknown. Researchers look at a variety of contributing factors, determining that most cancers are the result of a combination of several risk factors. That being said, thyroid cancer can be found in people who do not have any risk factors at all. It’s easy to blame bad habits, but there is significant research indicating that alcohol consumption and smoking are not linked to thyroid cancer. There are some risk factors that research shows may play a part in a thyroid cancer diagnosis.
Risk Factors of Thyroid Cancer
- Age. About 65% of thyroid cases are diagnosed in people between age 20 and 55.
- Genetics. Some thyroid cancer types are linked to genetics. There are also some rare hereditary conditions that are associated with thyroid cancer, like Cowden syndrome.
- Lack of iodine in the diet. Iodine contributes to normal thyroid function.
- Race. Thyroid cancer affects all races but develops more often in white people and Asian people.
- Radiation exposure. Moderate levels of radiation exposure to the head and neck may increase papillary and follicular thyroid cancers. With radiation exposure, thyroid cancer develops decades (up to 40 years) after exposure. Exposure to ionizing radiation is the strongest risk factor—this includes radiation therapy and diagnostic imaging tests (like x-rays). Before you stress out about any recent tests, be aware that modern imaging uses the lowest amount of radiation possible.
- Breast cancer patients or survivors. These women have a higher risk in the first few years following a breast cancer diagnosis or if they were diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age
- Obesity. Higher body mass index increases the risk for thyroid cancer, but the reason why is not understood.
- Height. Taller people have an increased risk, but the reason is speculative at this point. It is thought to be the result of hormone levels in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.
Treatment Options for Thyroid Cancer
Many cancer treatments rely on the same treatments to destroy, shrink, or remove cancer. There may be multiple treatments depending on the diagnosis and prognosis of the patient. Treatments start as soon as possible after diagnosis and may include:
- Chemotherapy. Drugs are used to destroy the cancer cells or prevent the cells from growing or multiplying.
- External-beam radiation therapy. The oncologist uses high-energy x-rays from a machine outside the body to kill cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy. The doctor targets specific genes and proteins of the cancer cells. Additionally, if there are areas of tissue that contribute to cancer growth and survival, the doctor will target those areas as well, limiting damage to normal cells.
- Surgery. There are a few different kinds of surgery available depending on where the cancer is located and what stage it is in. Surgery may remove part or all of the thyroid gland.
- Hormone treatment. Patients who have gone through thyroid cancer surgery usually require hormone treatment therapy to replace the hormones needed by the body and slow the growth of any remaining cancer cells.
- Radioactive iodine therapy. This radiation therapy destroys thyroid cancer cells that were not removed surgically.
- Clinical trials. These trials are the result of research studies that test a new approach to a treatment, new drug, new combination of standard treatments, and more.
- No treatment. A patient may choose not to go through treatment or stop treatment if they find it too difficult on their body.
In cases where the cancer is too advanced, treatment focuses on relieving symptoms instead of attacking the cause—this would be in cases of palliative care.
There are many ways to treat thyroid cancer, but the cancer still needs to be discovered in order to treat it. Thyroid cancer does a good job of hiding amongst healthy tissues; make sure you keep a close eye on symptoms and see your doctor if needed.