Thyroid cancer develops in your thyroid, which is a small and butterfly-shaped gland right at the base of your neck. The gland produces hormones that regulate metabolism, or how your body uses energy.
Moreover, thyroid hormones help control your body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate. Thyroid cancer, which is a specific type of endocrine cancer, is highly treatable.
Fortunately, it has a great cure rate. Unfortunately, it’s more common than you’d think. Around 53,000 Americans get such diagnosis on a yearly basis.
But, as mentioned above, the treatment for thyroid cancer seems to be working since it has high success rates. Women and people who are assigned female at birth are three times more likely to suffer from thyroid cancer, especially compared to men.
The disease is much more common in women and people in their 40s or 50s, but also in men and people in their 60s and 70s. In some instances, even children can suffer from it. If you want to learn more about it, here’s what you need to know:
Types of thyroid cancer
Healthcare providers generally classify thyroid cancer depending on the type of cells from which it grows. Some of the most common types of thyroid cancer are:
- Papillary: More than 80% of this type of cancer is papillary. This particular type of cancer grows rather slowly over time. Even if papillary thyroid cancer often spreads to lymph nodes in your neck, the disease mainly responds quite well to treatment. Papillary thyroid cancer is also very curable and rarely fatal.
- Follicular: Follicular thyroid cancer accounts for more than 15% of thyroid cancer diagnoses. This type of cancer is way more likely to spread to your bones and organs, for instance, your lungs. Metastatic cancer (the one that spreads) could be even more challenging to treat.
- Medullary: Around 2% of thyroid cancers are actually medullary. A quarter of people with medullary thyroid cancer might have a family history of the disease. Moreover, a faulty gene (also known as a genetic mutation) might be to blame for that.
- Anaplastic: This type of aggressive thyroid cancer is actually the hardest one to treat. It rapidly grows and spreads into surrounding tissue and other parts of the body. It’s also a rare cancer type that accounts for 2% of thyroid cancer diagnoses.
What are the stages?
Healthcare providers can use a staging system to understand how far thyroid cancer spreads. Generally, when cancer cells in your thyroid reach the last stage, they also spread to your nearby structures and lymph nodes first.
Then, the cancer might as well spread to distant lymph nodes, organs, and even bones. Thyroid cancer stages usually range from 1 to 4. In other words, the higher the number, the more serious the cancer.
The warning signs of thyroid cancer
You and your healthcare provider could feel a lump or growth in your neck, known as a thyroid nodule. But don’t panic! The majority of nodules are benign, and only 3 out of 20 thyroid nodules actually turn out to be cancerous. There might be other thyroid cancer symptoms, too, such as:
- difficulty breathing and swallowing
- loss of voice
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Signs that thyroid cancer has spread
If you have thyroid cancer that has metastasized to other areas of your body, you could experience different symptoms, like tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and even unexpected weight loss.
What causes thyroid cancer?
Experts aren’t really sure why some cells are cancerous (malignant), and especially why they attack your thyroid. Some factors, like radiation exposure, a diet low in iodine, and even faulty genes, could ultimately increase the risk.
Other risk factors could include an enlarged thyroid, family history of thyroid disease and thyroid cancer, thyroiditis, and gene mutations that could cause endocrine disease, like the multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A (MEN2A) and type 2B (MEN2B) syndrome, low iodine intake, obesity (high body mass index), radiation therapy for the head and neck, and exposure to radioactive fallout from different nuclear weapons or even a power plant accident.
How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?
If you have an enlarged thyroid nodule or any other signs, your healthcare provider could order one or more of these tests:
- Blood tests: A thyroid blood test checks hormone levels and establishes whether your thyroid is functioning as it’s supposed to.
- Biopsy: during a fine-needle aspiration biopsy, the doctor will remove cells from your thyroid to test for cancer. With the help of a sentinel node biopsy, they can determine if the cancer cells have spread to your lymph nodes. Moreover, they could also use ultrasound technology to guide such biopsy procedures.
- Radioiodine scan: This type of test can detect the cancer and establish whether or not it has spread. What happens is that you swallow a pill with a safe amount of radioactive iodine. In a couple of hours, your thyroid gland fully absorbs the iodine. Then, your doctor uses a device to measure the amount of radiation, and where there’s less radioactivity, that’s how they know it will require more testing.
- Imaging scans: radioactive iodine scans, computed tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans can easily detect the cancer and where it spread.
How can you treat thyroid cancer?
Treatments mainly depend on the tumor size and whether the cancer has spread or not. Some treatments could include:
- Surgery: Surgery is definitely the most common treatment for thyroid cancer. Depending on the tumor’s size and location, a surgeon could successfully remove a part of your thyroid gland or even the entire gland. Then, the surgeon removes any lymph nodes where the cancer cells might have spread.
- Radioiodine therapy: With radioiodine therapy, you basically swallow a pill or a liquid with a higher dose of radioactive iodine. It’s the same substance that’s used in a diagnostic radioiodine scan. Radioiodine shrinks and destroys the diseased thyroid gland, along with other cancer cells. This kind of treatment is quite safe, even if it doesn’t sound like it. Then, your thyroid gland absorbs all the radioiodine, and the rest of the body has minimal radiation exposure.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation kills cancer cells and stops them from growing. Also, external radiation therapy requires a machine that delivers very strong beams of energy right onto the tumor’s site. Internal radiation therapy might require placing radioactive seeds in or around the tumor.
- Chemotherapy: Intravenous and oral chemotherapy drugs kill the cancer cells and stop their growth. Only a few people who are diagnosed with thyroid cancer will ever require chemotherapy.
- Hormone therapy: This treatment blocks the release of hormones that could cause cancer to spread or even come back.
Even if it can easily spread to other parts of the body, like your liver, lungs, and even bones. Detecting and treating thyroid cancer in its early stages will drastically reduce the risk of metastasis.
However, the cancer could come back after treatment. Given that thyroid cancer usually grows slowly, it could even take up to 20 years to come back. Recurrence generally happens in 30% of cases.
All in all, the majority of thyroid cancer prognoses are positive. However, it’s important to know that after thyroid surgery or treatments, your body might need thyroid hormones to function. You could also need thyroid replacement hormone therapy for the rest of your life.
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