The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your lower neck. It produces hormones that help regulate your metabolism, temperature and energy levels.
Thyroid cancer develops when cells within the thyroid mutate and grow abnormally. Thyroid cancer symptoms can be subtle early on and sometimes are blamed on an infection or a seasonal allergy. Thyroid cancer is highly treatable using a variety of methods.
What are some common thyroid cancer symptoms?
Thyroid cancer symptoms can vary among patients. The most common symptom is a painless lump in the neck.
“The lump often develops either in the thyroid gland, located at the base of the neck just above the breastbone, or on the sides of the neck,” says endocrinologist Steven Waguespack, M.D. “The neck mass can represent the primary tumor and/or an enlarged lymph node that’s been replaced with cancer.”
Other thyroid cancer symptoms can include:
rapid growth of a neck mass
hoarseness of the voice
increase in bowel movements or diarrhea several times a day (in medullary thyroid cancer)
What are common risk factors for thyroid cancer?
The most common risk factor for thyroid cancer is prior exposure of the thyroid to radiation, such as from radiation therapy given for cancer treatment, or internal radiation exposure that results from nuclear fallout. However, most people who develop thyroid cancer won’t have any known risk factors.
“Most thyroid cancers are diagnosed in women of child-bearing age, but thyroid cancer also occurs in men, children and the elderly,” Waguespack says. “Genetics can also play a role, although this is not well-understood for most cases.”
In some cases, a person may have inherited a mutation in a gene like RET, APC, PTEN or DICER1 that predisposes them to developing thyroid cancer.
What are the different types of thyroid cancers?
The four major subtypes of thyroid cancer, in order from most to least common, are:
Other types of thyroid cancer include Hürthle cell carcinoma and poorly differentiated thyroid cancer.
“Except for medullary thyroid cancer, each of these cancers start in the main thyroid cell, the follicular cell, which is responsible for making thyroid hormones,” Waguespack says. “Unlike the other thyroid cancers, medullary thyroid carcinoma arises from a small subset of cells, called C-cells, scattered in the thyroid gland.”
When should you see a doctor for thyroid cancer symptoms?
“You should see a doctor if you can see or feel a mass in the neck, especially if there is a strong family history of cancer,” Waguespack says. “You should also see a doctor if you’ve received previous treatment for cancer that included radiation, or if you have symptoms of thyroid cancer, such as a hoarse voice or trouble swallowing or breathing.”
How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?
To determine whether you have thyroid cancer, you’ll undergo testing that may include:
ultrasound of the neck,
biopsy of the thyroid mass and/or abnormal lymph node(s),
specialized X-rays or CT scans of the neck and chest, and/or
labs to assess how the thyroid is working
If you receive a thyroid cancer diagnosis, your doctor may use blood work to monitor tumor markers, depending on the type of thyroid cancer.
If I come to MD Anderson for a suspected or confirmed thyroid cancer diagnosis, what will happen during my first appointment?
Patients not yet diagnosed are ideally seen in our thyroid nodule clinic. There, our team of specialists will evaluate you and confirm whether you have thyroid cancer in one day.
Patients with a new diagnosis of differentiated thyroid cancer or medullary thyroid cancer are seen by our expert surgeons or endocrinologists.
Patients with the most aggressive types of thyroid cancer, such as anaplastic, are evaluated in our FAST program, which brings together experts in oncologic endocrinology, medical oncology, head and neck surgery and radiation therapy. They work together quickly to confirm your cancer diagnosis and develop your treatment.
What treatment options are there for thyroid cancer?
radiation therapy for advanced disease in the neck or for cancer that has spread to other parts of the body
chemotherapy (usually pills taken by mouth) for advanced cancer that has become life-threatening
“At MD Anderson, we have a dedicated thyroid cancer team with significant and world-renowned experience in providing personalized treatment recommendations for all types of thyroid tumors, from benign thyroid masses to routine and advanced cases of thyroid carcinoma,” Waguespack says.
Patients here have access to a multidisciplinary team that includes adult and pediatric endocrinologists, endocrine surgeons, head and neck surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, and other ancillary services, such as social work counselors, genetic counseling, and child life for pediatric patients. Having an experienced thyroid cancer team that provides coordinated care can lead to better cancer outcomes, lower risks from therapy, especially surgery, and improved patient satisfaction.
“MD Anderson also offers innovative clinical trials and novel treatment plans that help to advance and set the standard of care of patients with thyroid cancer,” Waguespack says. “Where you go first for cancer treatment matters. If you have thyroid cancer or suspect that you do, I encourage you to take time to research the providers and treatment options available to you.”