Thyroid cancer is a malignant (cancerous) growth found in the thyroid gland. The gland sits in the throat below the voice box (larynx) and makes thyroid hormone and the hormone calcitonin. Thyroid cancer is highly treatable if caught early, because of its location. In addition to other head and neck specialists, our thyroid cancer team includes endocrinologists, doctors who specialize in the endocrine system and hormone production.

Risk Factors

Often, no one knows why cells grow out of control and form thyroid cancers. But there are several risk factors:

  • Family history of thyroid disease or cancer, including certain genetic conditions; in the case of a rare cancer called medullary, a defect in the gene RET can get passed on from parents.
  • Radiation therapy to the head or neck as a child
  • Gender (women are more likely to develop thyroid cancer)
  • Age (higher risk between 25 and 65)
  • History of enlarged thyroid (goiter)
  • Ethnicity (Asians face a higher risk)

Are You at Risk for Thyroid Disease?

Approximately 12 million Americans are affected by thyroid disease. Thyroid diseases occur at least five times more frequently in women than in men.

  • As many as ten percent of women over age 65 have an underactive thyroid.
  • Thyroid dysfunction complicates between 5 percent and 9 percent of all pregnancies.
  • Thyroid nodules are common, but only between 5 and 10 percent of these are cancerous.

Symptoms

Symptoms of thyroid cancer may include:

  • A lump, or nodule, in the front of the neck near the Adam's apple (for men)
  • Hoarseness
  • Swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Pain in the throat or neck

Other condition can also cause these symptoms, so it’s important to see a doctor right away.

Thyroid Cancer and Nodules

Thyroid nodules are growths, or collections of cells, that form on the thyroid. In most cases, thyroid nodules are benign, meaning they are not cancerous. They usually do not grow or spread and do not cause pain or other symptoms. In some cases, though, thyroid nodules are malignant, or cancerous. Cancerous thyroid growths can affect the functioning of the thyroid and cause other symptoms, including difficulty swallowing and swelling in the neck.

Diagnosis

To make a diagnosis, our doctors:

  • Take a full medical history
  • Perform a complete head and neck exam
  • Possibly remove a small amount of the tumor during a biopsy, for further study
  • Potentially run lab and imaging tests, including:
    • Laryngoscopy: examination of the larynx (voice box) with a laryngoscope
    • Blood Tests: look for abnormal levels of calcium and hormones, including the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) that controls how fast thyroid cells grow
    • Ultrasound
    • CT (CAT) scan
    • X-ray