Thyroid Cancer: The Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Thyroid cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer. The thyroid is a small gland in the neck that sits below the larynx and near the trachea. When overactive cells start growing, it causes a malignant tumor that can destroy nearby tissue and metastasis to other parts of the body. In 2020, it’s estimated that nearly 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer. And surprisingly, it’s easy to overlook symptoms because they can be commonly associated with other conditions.

Recognizing the symptoms of thyroid cancer is the first step towards treatment and recovery. This can also prevent the cancer from spreading and infecting other parts of the body.

Here is what you need to know about thyroid cancer.

Symptoms Of Thyroid Cancer

Since thyroid cancer grows in the neck, symptoms can greatly impact the patient’s voice and throat when they start to appear. But symptoms can also be difficult to detect.

The following symptoms can be an indication of thyroid cancer:

  • A growing lump in the neck
  • Swollen neck
  • Pain in the neck that can reach the ears
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Persistent cough that is not related to a cold

Some of these symptoms are also common for non-cancerous illnesses. But if they persist for a long period of time and don’t go away, then it’s important to get tested by your doctor.

Causes And Risk Factors

Like many cancers, there isn’t an exact cause of thyroid cancer. A person could have genetic mutations that cause the cells in the thyroid to grow at a rapid pace, forming a tumor. But other external factors could also play a role.

Based on the history of cases, there are three risk factors that have been linked to developing thyroid cancer. Those at greater risk of developing thyroid cancer include:

  • Females, as the cancer is more common in women than men
  • People exposed to high levels of radiation
  • People with inherited genetic syndromes

Although there are few risk factors, it’s possible for anyone to develop thyroid cancer at any age.

Diagnosing Thyroid Cancer

There are different types of thyroid cancer, which means there are a number of ways it can be diagnosed.

Part of the reason why thyroid cancer is so prevalent among Americans is because of increased CT or MRI scans performed for other medical problems. These tests can detect this cancer and alert doctors of incidental small thyroid nodules. Your doctor might discover thyroid cancer while trying to diagnose something completely different.

A physical exam and blood tests can also be used to screen for thyroid cancer. These tests give doctors an indication of whether or not there is a change in a patient’s thyroid, and your doctor can also question your family history or past exposure to radiation. The doctor might call for genetic testing, if needed.

An ultrasound can help doctors spot cancer by capturing an image of the thyroid through the lower neck. Another method for testing the thyroid for cancer cells is by removing part of the thyroid tissue in a biopsy and testing it in the lab.

After the tests, doctors will determine if thyroid cancer is in fact your diagnosis. If it is, your doctor will specify which type of thyroid cancer you have and what stage it’s at.

There are three factors that will determine a patient’s diagnosis:

  • The tumor size and where it’s located
  • If the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes
  • If the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body

Each of these factors will be classified under a label to indicate the severity or stage of thyroid cancer. The stages range from zero to four, from least severe to most severe.

Treatments For Thyroid Cancer

After getting a diagnosis for thyroid cancer, your doctor will decide how it should be treated. The decision will depend on the severity of the condition and how much the cancer has spread.

The typical first form of treatment is surgery. There are at least seven types of surgeries that could be performed, each with its own goal. Low risk patients might get a lobectomy, which removes one side or lobe of the thyroid. Patients with more severe conditions might get their thyroid completely removed through a total thyroidectomy, or a neck dissection that removes lymph nodes and nearby tissues if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

Radiation is another common form of treatment that might be performed to kill any remaining cancer in the body. If the previous treatments are not enough, targeted drug therapy can attempt to directly treat the cancer.

Despite how common thyroid cancer is, there is a high survival rate for patients. The five-year relative survival rate is divided into three main categories based on how much the cancer has spread.

  • Localized (no indication of spread outside the thyroid): near 100 percent
  • Regional (spread outside the thyroid to nearby structures): 99 percent
  • Distant (cancer has spread to distant parts of the body such as the bones): 78 percent

Living With Thyroid Cancer

There is still a chance that patients who have been treated and cured of thyroid cancer can develop it again. Regular blood tests and thyroid scans can help patients monitor their condition. Luckily, recurred thyroid cancer is treatable.

Recovering from thyroid cancer will affect each patient differently, depending on the overall health and severity of the condition. It’s possible to experience long term side effects such as dry mouth, voice changes, hypothyroidism or hypocalcemia. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t only impact your physical health, but also your mental wellbeing. Talk to your doctor about the types of support available for patients in this situation.

Consider learning more about your risk factor and whether your genetics could lead to developing thyroid cancer. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms that aren’t going away, then it’s important to see your doctor sooner than later to find out what the problem is.

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