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What is Thyroid Cancer?

At the base of your neck is a butterfly-shaped gland that is your thyroid. The thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate your heart rate, metabolism, blood pressure, and body temperature. When abnormal cells begin to grow in the gland, they can cause thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer is an uncommon type of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are about 56,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in the United States every year. Experts are unsure what causes thyroid cancer. The disease is often treatable with surgery and chemotherapy.

There are different types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary thyroid cancer (PTC). This is the most common type of thyroid cancer. This type of thyroid cancer grows slowly and can spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.
  • Follicular thyroid cancer (FTC). This is the second most common type of thyroid cancer. This type of cancer can spread to the lungs.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC). This type of thyroid is less common.
  • Anaplastic carcinoma. This is a very rare and very aggressive form of thyroid cancer. It spreads quickly and is often fatal.
  • Thyroid lymphoma. This is a very rare form of lymphoma that starts in the thyroid gland.

Symptoms

Some people have no symptoms of thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer can cause any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • Swelling in the neck
  • A lump in the neck
  • Pain in the front of the neck
  • Changes to your voice that may not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble breathing*
  • A persistent cough

*If you are having trouble breathing, be sure to contact your healthcare provider immediately, or seek emergency care.

When to See a Doctor

If you have any of these signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor right away. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other underlying medical conditions.

Risk Factors

The cause of thyroid cancer is unknown. Certain risk factors for thyroid cancer include genetics, history of thyroid tumors, and exposure to high levels of radiation.

Diagnosis and Tests

If your healthcare provider suspects you have thyroid cancer, he or she may order the following tests and procedures:

  • Physical exam
  • Blood tests
  • Biopsy of a sample of thyroid tissue to look for cancerous cells
  • Imaging tests

Treatments

Treatment for thyroid cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer. In most cases, thyroid cancer can be cured with treatment.

Treatment options may include:

  • Surgery to remove all or most of the thyroid.
  • Radioactive iodine. Radioactive iodine treatment is often used after the thyroid is removed to destroy any cancerous tissue.
  • Medications that target cancer cells.

Depending on the extent of the cancer, chemotherapy and radiation may also be used to destroy cancer cells in the body.

Prevention

There is no known way to prevent thyroid cancer.