Understanding Thyroid Cancer
Thyroid cancer and its effects
The thyroid is a gland located in the front of the neck that produces hormones. The thyroid has a number of different types of cells. Different cancers can grow from the different cells. Each type of cancer requires different treatment.
The thyroid needs iodine from the blood to stay healthy. A type of cancer called “follicular cancer” is most common when people’s diets don’t include enough iodine. Thyroid cancer also includes a slow-growing type called papillary cancer. Other thyroid cancers are less common and are usually harder to find and treat.
A number of thyroid conditions are NOT cancer, but still may need treatment. These conditions include:
- Overactive thyroid
- Underactive thyroid
- Enlarged thyroid
- Thyroid cysts or nodules
Are you at risk for thyroid cancer?
Some people have a greater chance of getting thyroid cancer than others. For example, women are about three times more likely to get it than men. Also, risk happens earlier in life for women (in their 40s or 50s) compared to men (usually in their 60s or 70s). Other risk factors include:
- Family history – If your family has a history of thyroid cancer, you may be more likely to get it.
- Genetic conditions – If you have colon polyps or other genetic conditions, you may be at higher risk for thyroid cancer. These conditions are not very common.
- Low iodine levels – This is not a major problem in the U.S. Most Americans get enough iodine in their diets because it’s in table salt and other foods.
- Radiation – If you’re often exposed to radiation, you are at higher risk for thyroid cancer. Radiation can come from certain medical treatments. In fact, before the 1960s, children were sometimes treated with low dose radiation for enlarged tonsils, acne and other minor conditions.
Find thyroid cancer early for the best results
You should see your doctor if you notice neck lumps, swelling or nodules. Your doctor may recommend examining your neck twice a year to look and feel for any growths or lumps. No screening test is currently available to find thyroid cancer, but some blood tests or a thyroid ultrasound may find changes in the thyroid.
Learn about thyroid cancer symptoms
Ask your doctor about thyroid cancer if you have any of these signs or symptoms:
- A lump in the neck, especially if it’s growing
- Swelling of the neck
- Pain in the front of the neck, which can sometimes reach to the ears
- Changes in your voice that do not go away
- Trouble swallowing or breathing
- A long-lasting cough when you don’t have a cold
Making sense of thyroid cancer stages
Doctors have identified several forms of thyroid cancer and have developed different staging systems for various cancers. For example, some thyroid cancers start at Stage 1 and can progress to Stage 4. But there’s also a type called “anaplastic” which starts at Stage 4 because it’s so hard to treat.
Some thyroid cancer stages are based on age. For people younger than 45 who get papillary and follicular thyroid cancer, the only stages are Stage 1 and Stage 2. These stages are based on whether the cancer has spread. For older patients, two more stages are added. The seriousness of those advanced stages is based on whether the cancer has grown outside the thyroid gland and how far it has grown into the neck.
Getting treatment for thyroid cancer
- Radioactive iodine treatment – When radioactive iodine is used, it concentrates in thyroid cells. It can destroy parts of the gland not removed by surgery. The treatment can also work if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body.
- Thyroid hormone therapy – Taking daily pills of thyroid hormone can replace the hormone your body lacks after surgery. It can also stop any left over cancer cells from growing.
- Targeted therapy – This approach is often given in pill form. It finds the cells that are becoming cancerous and attacks them directly.
Life after thyroid treatment
The good news is that thyroid treatment works for many people. However, when it does work, it’s still very important to see your doctor often to make sure the cancer doesn’t return.
Sometimes thyroid cancer doesn’t go away completely. In those cases, ongoing treatment with chemotherapy, radiation therapy or other types of treatment may be needed.
Whatever your situation, it’s a good idea to plan for life as a cancer survivor. Talk with your doctor about the best way to get started.
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