Understanding Thyroid Cancer

Get the facts about thyroid cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

A woman touching the sides of her throat feeling for lumps that could be connected to thyriod cancer.

Get the facts about thyroid cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancer is diagnosed in roughly 52,000 people every year. More than three times as common in women than in men, the disease is highly treatable, accounting for fewer than 2,200 deaths annually. 

“You can see thyroid cancer at any age, though it’s much more prevalent in people in their 30s or 40s,” says Brendan Gaylis, MD, an otolaryngologist at Scripps Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic. “One of my recent patients was only 22, which is uncommon.” 

But there is good news, according to Christopher Marx, MD, an endocrinologist at Scripps Clinic Anderson Medical Pavilion in La Jolla. The prognosis is typically better for younger patients.

Thyroid cancer symptoms

In the earliest stages of thyroid cancer, you may not have any signs or symptoms.

“Most thyroid cancers are found by accident,” says Dr. Marx. “Someone may feel a lump in their own neck, but more often, someone else points it out to them — a friend or family member, or even a hairdresser or dentist. They will notice a difference in symmetry — a fullness in one side of the neck but not the other — but it’s painless.”

Other signs of thyroid cancer include:

  • An increasingly hoarse voice 
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Neck or throat pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

Thyroid cancer diagnosis and treatment

Patients with symptoms tend to go to their primary care doctor, who then refers them to an endocrinologist to do more tests. These tests may include: 

  • Blood tests to check thyroid hormone levels
  • Imaging tests, including ultrasound, to look for tumors or see if the cancer has spread beyond the thyroid gland
  • Biopsy, a procedure that removes small amounts of thyroid tissue for examination under a microscope

In many cases, suspicious neck lumps turn out to be a benign (noncancerous) condition called thyroid nodules. 

In people with cancer, the most common and most treatable form is called papillary thyroid cancer. It requires both surgery and radioactive iodine, a therapy that requires patients to isolate themselves for a few days to prevent others from being exposed to radiation. 

Improved understanding means improved survival

Although there are other, more aggressive forms of thyroid cancer, Dr. Marx is optimistic about the future of treatment for this disease. 

“While the detection rate for thyroid cancer now is quite high, the death rate remains minimal,” he says. “As with many diseases, the science has gotten better. Genetic testing has eliminated some unnecessary surgery, and the prognosis for most people remains very good.”

This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.

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