Advanced treatment for thyroid cancer in San Diego
Advanced treatment for thyroid cancer in San Diego
Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center provides the most advanced thyroid cancer diagnostic and treatment services with expertise, compassion and a personal team that works together to ensure you receive the best possible care. Our oncologists use the most sophisticated treatments, such as single-site robotic surgery and the newest radiation therapy technologies.
Our multidisciplinary, collaborative board of cancer specialists reviews complex care plans to ensure patients receive the best possible care from diagnosis to recovery in San Diego.
About thyroid cancer
Thyroid cancer is cancer that begins in the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck just below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid gland has two halves known as lobes — one on each side of the neck — joined at the base by a strip of tissue called the isthmus.
Thyroid cancer is a type of endocrine cancer, which means it affects the cells that produce hormones. The thyroid gland produces hormones that help regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and metabolism.
About 3 out of 4 cases of thyroid cancer affect women. Generally, it’s diagnosed at a younger age than most other cancers.
Types of thyroid cancer
There are different types of thyroid cancer. Each type is determined by the cell type in which it begins.
There are two main types of thyroid cells:
- Follicular cells are the most common cell type. They use iodine from the blood to produce thyroid hormone. The amount of thyroid hormone produced is controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain through a substance called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).
- Parafollicular cells, also known as C cells, make the hormone calcitonin, which helps control how the body uses calcium.
There are three main types of thyroid cancer:
- Differentiated thyroid cancer
- Medullary thyroid carcinoma
- Anaplastic (undifferentiated) thyroid cancer
Thyroid lymphomas and sarcomas make up the set of much rarer forms of thyroid cancer.
Differentiated thyroid cancers
Differentiated thyroid cancers develop from follicular cells and are the most common thyroid cancer type. These include:
- Papillary cancers, also called papillary carcinomas or papillary adenocarcinomas, represent about 8 of 10 thyroid cancers. These slow-growing cancers usually affect only one lobe of the thyroid gland, but they often spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. Treatment is often successful for papillary cancers.
- Follicular cancers, also called follicular carcinoma or follicular adenocarcinoma, represent about 1 of 10 thyroid cancers and occur most often in countries where iodine is lacking in the diet. Generally, these cancers do not spread to lymph nodes, but can spread to other parts of the body. The follicular cancer prognosis is very good in most cases.
- Hṻrthle (Hurthle) cell cancer, also called oxyphil cell carcinoma, represents about 3% of thyroid cancers. It’s typically more difficult to detect and treat.
Medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC)
Medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) starts in the parafollicular or C cells of the thyroid gland and makes up about 4% of thyroid cancers. This cancer type can be more difficult to find and treat, and may spread to lymph nodes or other areas of the body before it’s found in the thyroid. MTC cancer types include:
- Sporadic MTC is the most common type of MTC, making up about 8 of 10 MTC cancers. It mainly affects adults and occurs in only one thyroid lobe.
- Familial MTC is a cancer type that is inherited and often develops during childhood or early adulthood. This cancer usually occurs in both lobes of the thyroid gland.
Anaplastic (undifferentiated) thyroid cancer
Also called undifferentiated, anaplastic carcinoma is a rare form of thyroid cancer that makes up about 2% of all thyroid cancers. It may develop from an existing papillary or follicular cancer, tends to spread quickly, and is difficult to treat.
This rare thyroid cancer type makes up less than 4% of all thyroid cancers.
Like thyroid lymphomas, this rare thyroid cancer type makes up less than 4% of all thyroid cancers.
Thyroid cancer causes, risks and family history
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes most types of thyroid cancer. Some cases are related to an inherited condition, or to gene mutations that occur during a person’s lifetime. Other thyroid cancers have no identifiable cause.
Thyroid cancer risk factors include:
Women have three times the risk of developing thyroid cancer as men.
Women are most often diagnosed in their 40s or 50s. Men are generally diagnosed later, in their 60s or 70s.
Exposure to radiation
Radiation exposure from medical treatments or environmental sources, especially during childhood, can increase risk.
In areas of the world where diets are low in iodine, thyroid risk is higher. This is not common in the United States.
Familial medullary thyroid cancer is usually caused by an inherited genetic mutation. Children of parents who carry the gene mutation have a 50% chance of inheriting it. Those who inherit it are very likely to develop medullary thyroid cancer.
Family history of thyroid cancer
If your parent, sibling or child develops thyroid cancer, even if there is no inherited genetic disorder, your risk is increased.
Having any of these risk factors does not mean you will develop thyroid cancer. If you’re concerned about your risk, talk with your doctor.
If you have family members who have had thyroid cancer, especially if they have a known inherited gene disorder, consider talking with one of our genetic counselors.
Thyroid cancer prevention, screenings and early detection
Except for familial medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), most cases of thyroid cancer cannot be prevented, as most people who develop the disease do not have any known risk factors. There’s no general thyroid cancer screening test at this time.
Because familial MTC is an inherited disease, genetic testing can identify gene mutations before thyroid cancer develops or detect it early. If a genetic mutation is found, the thyroid may be removed to prevent cancer from developing. People who have their thyroid removed will need to take thyroid medication for the rest of their life.
Thyroid cancer symptoms, diagnosis and stages
According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancers are being detected earlier than in the past, in part due to improved diagnostic techniques, and can be treated successfully.
Learn more about thyroid cancer symptoms, diagnostic testing and stages below. As with most cancers, the earlier thyroid cancer is found, the greater the likelihood of successful treatment.
Thyroid cancer symptoms
Symptoms of thyroid cancer include:
- A lump or swelling in the neck
- Pain in the front of the neck that may extend to the ears
- Hoarseness or voice changes that does not improve
- Pain or difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty breathing (restricted airway)
- A constant cough not due to a cold
Many of these symptoms may be caused by other conditions that are not cancer. But let your doctor know if you’re experiencing anything unusual, so that you can identify and treat potential problems.
If you have symptoms of thyroid cancer, your doctor may recommend diagnostic testing. Scripps MD Anderson physicians use blood, lab and imaging tests to diagnose thyroid cancer.
A blood sample is collected and checked for abnormal levels of hormones and other substances that can indicate a problem with the thyroid. Blood tests cannot confirm thyroid cancer, but they can let your doctor know if your thyroid is functioning as it should be. If not, other tests may be needed.
If other diagnostic tests suggest you have thyroid cancer, your doctor may order a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. Generally, there are two ways to perform a thyroid biopsy:
- Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy uses a thin needle inserted through the skin to remove tissue samples from different parts of the thyroid. The samples are examined for cancer cells under a microscope.
- Surgical biopsy is when thyroid tissue is surgically removed for examination.
Ultrasound is an imaging procedure that uses sound waves to create pictures of thyroid nodules. A wand-like instrument is moved over the neck to send sound waves into the tissue, and the images are then recorded and displayed for review. The image of the nodule can help the doctor decide if it’s likely to be cancer.
Radioactive iodine is swallowed or injected into a vein, and absorbed by the thyroid gland. A camera tracks where the radioactivity is. Because medullary thyroid cancer does not absorb iodine, this test is used only for other thyroid cancer types.
Computed tomography (CT) scan
A CT scan is an imaging test that captures images of the body from different angles. The images are combined to create detailed cross-sectional views of organs, bones and blood vessels.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
MRI relies on a powerful magnet, radio waves and advanced digital technology to provide detailed images of organs, bone and soft tissue.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
A PET scan involves a type of radioactive sugar that existing cancer cells will quickly absorb so they can be identified under a special camera. It’s combined with a CT scan to give physicians the ability to view a picture of potentially cancerous areas through the PET while also seeing more detailed images from a CT scan.
If thyroid cancer affects the vocal chords, the physician may perform a laryngoscopy to check your voice box (larynx) to determine if the vocal cords are functioning properly.
Thyroid cancer stages
Thyroid cancer staging describes how far cancer may have spread. Scripps oncologists use stages to develop a treatment plan and thyroid cancer prognosis.
Thyroid cancer stages differ depending on the type of cancer and the age of the patient:
- Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years
- Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older
- Medullary thyroid cancer for all ages
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is always considered stage IV thyroid cancer
Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer stages
Stage I: In patients younger than 45, stage I papillary and follicular thyroid cancer includes tumors of any size. Cancer may have spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body. In patients age 45 or older, the tumor is 2 cm or less and is only in the thyroid.
Stage II: In patients younger than 45, stage II papillary and follicular thyroid cancer has spread to other areas, such as the lungs or bone, and may have spread to lymph nodes. In patients age 45 and older, the tumor is 2 to 4 cm and only in the thyroid.
Stage III: Stage III papillary and follicular thyroid cancer applies only to patients 45 years and older. The tumor is larger than 4 cm and only in the thyroid, or any size but has spread outside the thyroid and to lymph nodes in the neck.
Stage IV: Stage IV papillary and follicular thyroid cancer applies only to patients age 45 and older and has three substages:
- Stage IVA is when the tumor is any size and cancer has spread beyond the thyroid to tissues in the throat (including the larynx, trachea, esophagus or skin) and may have spread to lymph nodes in the neck and chest.
- Stage IVB is when the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to the neck near the spine, or around blood vessels in the upper neck or chest, and may have spread to lymph nodes.
- Stage IVC is when the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones, and may have spread to lymph nodes.
Medullary thyroid cancer stages
Stage 0: Stage 0 medullary cancer is found only through a special screening test. No tumor is found in the thyroid.
Stage I: Stage I medullary cancer is in the thyroid only, and the tumor is 2 cm or smaller.
Stage II: In stage II medullary cancer, the tumor is 2 to 4 cm and only in the thyroid, or any size and has spread to tissues just outside the thyroid, but not to lymph nodes.
Stage III: In stage III medullary cancer, the tumor is any size, has spread to lymph nodes near the trachea and may have spread to tissues just beyond the thyroid.
Stage IV: Stage IV medullary thyroid cancer is divided into three substages:
- Stage IVA is either of the following:
- The tumor is any size and cancer has spread outside the thyroid to tissues under the skin, trachea, esophagus or larynx, and may have spread to lymph nodes near the trachea or the larynx.
- The tumor is any size and cancer may have spread to tissues just outside the thyroid. Cancer has spread to lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck or between the lungs.
- Stage IVB is when cancer has spread to the tissue in front of the spinal column, or has surrounded the carotid artery or the blood vessels in the area between the lungs. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes.
- Stage IVC is when the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to distant parts of the body and may have spread to lymph nodes.
Anaplastic thyroid cancer stages
Anaplastic thyroid cancer always is considered stage IV.
Understanding your diagnosis
A cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down. It’s completely normal to feel anxious, scared, depressed or overwhelmed. Learning all you can about your diagnosis and your options can help you make informed, confident decisions about the next steps to take.
Questions and considerations
Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor or health insurance provider regarding your diagnosis:
- Should I get a second opinion?
- How do I find a specialist?
- What is my cancer treatment plan?
- Will I have to miss work/school?
- What are the side effects of thyroid cancer treatment?
- How successful is my treatment likely to be?
- What costs will be covered by insurance?
- Which costs will I be responsible for?
Your Scripps cancer team is here to help you find the answers you need to take an active role in your care. In addition, there are a number of community resources that provide education, information and helpful resources — often at no cost.
Learn more about the many cancer patient resources available to you and your loved ones.
Treatment and clinical trials
When you’ve been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you want a team of expert cancer specialists on your side. Scripps MD Anderson multidisciplinary oncology teams fight thyroid cancer using the latest evidence-based treatments and therapies, including minimally invasive surgery and targeted radiation therapy.
Our approach to treating thyroid cancer
Your Scripps MD Anderson cancer care team includes professionals from every area of oncology, including endocrinologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists and nurses who specialize in cancer care.
In addition, our nurse navigators can help coordinate your care and ensure you have support and guidance throughout your treatment and recovery. Learn more about how Scripps MD Anderson puts you at the center of care.
Thyroid cancer treatment options at Scripps MD Anderson
Your Scripps MD Anderson cancer care team will customize your treatment plan based on several factors, including:
- The stage of your cancer
- Whether your cancer has spread
- Your age and overall health
Thyroid cancer surgery
Surgery is the most common treatment for thyroid cancer. Depending on the stage of the cancer and how far it may have spread, Scripps MD Anderson physicians may use several surgical procedures to treat thyroid cancer. These include:
- Lobectomy to remove only the tissue where cancer is found
- Near-total thyroidectomy to remove most of the thyroid gland
- Total thyroidectomy to remove the entire thyroid gland, which means the patient will need to take thyroid hormone replacement medication for the rest of their lives
- Lymphadenectomy to remove cancerous lymph nodes in the neck
Your thyroid cancer treatment plan also may include radiation therapy. Scripps MD Anderson radiation oncologists use advanced radiation therapy techniques that precisely target tumors while minimizing radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues and organs.
- Radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy is a type of radiation treatment that uses radioactive iodine, usually given by mouth, to kill any remaining thyroid cancer cells that have not been surgically removed. Because only the thyroid absorbs iodine, radioactive iodine can kill cancer cells without harming healthy tissue.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is an advanced form of radiation therapy. IMRT allows the radiation oncologist to specify the dose of radiation for the tumor while restricting the dose to surrounding healthy tissues.
Chemotherapy drugs may be used in combination with radiation therapy to treat anaplastic thyroid cancer. It’s usually not effective for other types of thyroid cancer.
Thyroid hormone therapy
Drugs that affect thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) may be part of a treatment plan to regulate thyroid hormone levels and prevent cancer from growing or returning.
Targeted therapy uses drugs that attack specific receptors on cancer cells. It is often used to treat medullary thyroid cancer, and it can also be used to treat papillary or follicular thyroid cancer that does not respond well to other treatments.
Thyroid cancer clinical trials
Some thyroid cancer treatment plans may involve clinical trials. Talk to your physician about whether a clinical trial is right for you.
For a list of clinical trials that are currently enrolling patients, see our current list of clinical trials.
Your custom cancer treatment plan
Your Scripps MD Anderson cancer team will develop a customized treatment plan outlining the treatments and therapies we recommend for your care. Before you begin treatment, you and your physician will review your plan together and discuss any questions or concerns you may have.
Your thyroid cancer treatment plan generally includes:
- Family and medical history
- A summary of your cancer diagnosis and staging information
- Diagnostic testing completed (e.g., imaging, biopsy, lab tests)
- Plans for surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and/or other treatments
- Potential side effects of treatments
- Contact information for your cancer care team members
Along with helping you understand your course of treatment and encouraging discussion between you and your physician, your plan helps your team coordinate your care. You also can share your treatment plan with other providers who may be involved in your medical care.
Your cancer care team
Your thyroid cancer care team includes health and medical professionals from a wide range of specialties. Scripps MD Anderson will customize your team to ensure you have the expertise and support you need.
Your team may include:
- Surgeons and surgical oncologists
- Radiation oncologists
- Medical oncologists
- Registered nurses
- Nurse navigators
- Oncology social workers
Visit your cancer care team for more on our multidisciplinary approach to treatment.
Thyroid cancer treatment locations
Scripps MD Anderson diagnoses and treats thyroid cancer at numerous locations throughout San Diego County. From Chula Vista and La Jolla to Encinitas and beyond, our extensive network of Southern California cancer care centers includes:
- Four Scripps hospitals on five campuses
- Outpatient clinics
- Specialty cancer treatment centers
We are now offering Video Visits for some specialty care appointments. If you are interested in scheduling a Video Visit, contact the provider’s office directly. The doctor’s office will work with you to determine if this is the right type of visit for you.
For details on specific centers and their services, visit cancer care locations.
Support groups, services and resources
Scripps offers a comprehensive lineup of support groups, support services and resources to help you along every step of your cancer journey.
Thyroid cancer support groups, workshops and events
In support of our patients, survivors, their family members and the community, we host a handful of cancer support groups as well as a range of free workshops and health and wellness events on a number of topics, such as:
- Expressive writing
Check the current list of support offerings or contact your oncology social worker or cancer care coordinator.
For info about other cancer support groups in the San Diego community, call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345.
Support services for cancer patients
We are here for you — not only as your oncologists, but as a robust multidisciplinary team of experts who understands that your cancer journey is about much more than your medical treatment. Specifically, Scripps MD Anderson offers a variety of patient support services to ensure your physical, psychological and emotional well-being as well as resources for dealing with the logistical and financial aspects of cancer care. Our services and resources include:
- Oncology nurses and nurse navigators with extensive clinical expertise in cancer care to help guide you and your caregivers to make informed decisions and ensure your optimal care.
- Palliative care to provide an extra layer of supportive care to manage pain and relieve symptoms, offer emotional and spiritual support, and improve your quality of life.
- Oncology social workers specially trained to provide counseling, connect you with community and medical resources, assist with transportation and housing and coordinate care after discharge.
- Our registered dietitian nutritionists offer individualized nutrition support for patients whose efforts to optimize their nutrition may be affected by cancer symptoms or treatment side effects.
- Referrals and professional care from experts in psychology, psychiatry and emotional health, including individual and family counseling to help with the emotional challenges of cancer.
- Physical rehabilitation and occupational therapy services, including wound care, voice therapy and swallowing therapy, lymphedema therapy, balance and vestibular rehabilitation, yoga and more.
- Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine for patients interested in mind-body healing through acupuncture, biofeedback, herbal nutrition, massage therapy, integrative cancer care and more.
- Nondenominational spiritual care offered by our chaplains to help coordinate spiritual care with your own clergy, rabbi or spiritual advisor.
- Visiting patient services if you reside beyond San Diego and want help arranging appointments or learning more about short-term lodging.
For the full spectrum of offerings, please visit our cancer patient support services section.
Additional resources for patients, caregivers and family members
Patient education is an integral part of understanding and coping with your cancer diagnosis and treatment. To stay informed, we encourage our patients, along with their caregivers and family members, to:
- Bookmark the Scripps glossary of cancer terms for easy referencing.
- Download the appointment form and list of medications form on our resources page.
- Consult your oncology team for educational materials and a list of trusted online sources beyond the Scripps site.
Navigating cancer might seem overwhelming — especially with so much information online. To ensure you receive the most accurate details, always look to your multidisciplinary team of cancer care experts first.