A small, butterfly-shaped gland known as the thyroid is responsible for a host of functions in the body. When that gland is not working properly, such as when cancer has taken hold, individuals may experience a range of side effects. Learning about the thyroid and thyroid cancer can help individuals recognize their own risk factors for the disease.
The thyroid gland
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the thyroid sends out hormones that control activities in the body, including breathing and pumping blood. The gland also regulates certain metabolic functions, such as controlling weight and putting on muscle. The thyroid also helps to keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should.
What is thyroid cancer?
Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the thyroid. At first, thyroid cancer may not produce any symptoms, but as it grows, the cancer can cause swelling in the neck and may make it difficult to talk and swallow, says the Mayo Clinic.
Thyroid cancer is not the most common cancer, but it is helpful to learn more about the disease. The American Cancer Society reports that, as of 2022, there are about 43,800 new cases of thyroid cancer (11,860 in men and 31,940 in women). Women are three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men, and until recently, it was the most rapidly increasing cancer in the U.S.
Types of thyroid cancer
The American Thyroid Association notes that there are four main types of thyroid cancer:
1. Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common, accounting for 70 to 80% of all thyroid cancers. It can occur at any age. It grows slowly, but can spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.
2. Follicular thyroid cancer accounts for 10 to 15% of cases in the U.S., and may spread through the blood to distant organs.
3. Medullary thyroid cancer is uncommon but can run in families. It is associated with other endocrine tumors.
4. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most aggressive and advanced form of the disease and the least likely to respond to treatment. It is very rare.
The ACS says scientists are not sure about what causes thyroid cancer, but getting too much radiation around the neck when young and inheriting certain genetic conditions from parents increases risk. Being female also increases risk.
Thyroid cancer treatment
Doctors diagnose thyroid cancer by using ultrasound imaging and fine needle aspiration biopsy. Sometimes thyroid nodules are removed surgically and studied. According to the ATA, the first step in treating thyroid cancer is surgery. In some cases, only one lobe of the thyroid may be removed and in others the entire thyroid is removed.
The extent of surgery depends on tumor size and whether or not the cancer has spread. Individuals will have to take thyroid hormone replacement medication if their thyroids are removed. Radioactive iodine therapy also may be used if thyroid cancer spreads to lymph nodes.
Thyroid cancer tends to be highly treatable and is being detected earlier than ever. That is good news for those affected by the disease.