Key Points about Thyroid Cancer 

  • Thyroid cancer occurs three times more often in women than it does in men, but it can affect anyone.
  • Diagnosis of thyroid cancer typically includes blood tests, physical exam, biopsy, ultrasound or other imaging tests.
  • Treatment for thyroid cancer usually consists of a combination of surgical procedures to remove the cancerous cells, and therapies to destroy the cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.

Overview 

Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that affects the thyroid, a small gland located at the base of your neck. The thyroid creates hormones that help regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and weight.

Thyroid cancer causes 

Cancer occurs when some types of cells start to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells grow more quickly than healthy cells, leading to the formation of a mass. Experts don’t know why these abnormal cells begin growing in the thyroid.

Thyroid cancer risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk of developing thyroid cancer include:

  • Being female
  • Being exposed to radiation treatments to your head or neck
  • Carrying the genes for certain inherited syndromes, including familial medullary thyroid cancer, multiple endocrine neoplasia, Cowden’s syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis

Thyroid cancer symptoms

In its early stages, thyroid cancer doesn’t typically cause any symptoms. At it progresses, thyroid cancer can cause some or all of the following signs and symptoms:

  • A lump that you can feel through the skin on your neck
  • Change in your voice, such as hoarseness
  • Pain in your neck or throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Trouble swallowing

Thyroid cancer diagnosis

Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose thyroid cancer:

  • Physical exam. Your specialist will complete a physical exam, including closely examining your neck for any irregularities. Your specialist will also gather information about your health history.
  • Blood tests. Your doctor may order blood tests to check if your thyroid gland is functioning correctly.
  • Ultrasound. Your doctor may order this type of imaging test to get a closer look at the inside of your neck and throat.
  • Biopsy. Your specialist removes a small tissue sample (biopsy) from your thyroid for close analysis in the lab.

Thyroid cancer treatment

Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for thyroid cancer:

  • Watchful waiting. In some cases, treatment may not be needed right away – or ever. During this period, you will visit your doctor regularly for follow-up exams and testing.
  • Surgery. Your specialist may recommend surgery to remove the cancerous cells. Depending on the extent of cancer and the stage of your thyroid cancer, surgery may include removing all or most of the thyroid (thyroidectomy), a portion of the thyroid (thyroid lobectomy) or lymph nodes in your neck (lymph node dissection).
  • Thyroid hormone therapy. After surgery, you may need to take thyroid hormone medication for the rest of your life.
  • Chemotherapy. This treatment involves using medications – either oral (by mouth) or intravenous (by vein) – to destroy cancer cells.
  • Targeted drug therapy. This treatment uses certain specialized medications to destroy cancer cells.
  • Radioactive iodine. In this treatment, you will swallow radioactive iodine in a pill or liquid form. The iodine works to destroy cancerous cells while having little effect on healthy cells.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.