Thyroid cancer is a relatively uncommon cancer that develops in the thyroid—the small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. The thyroid produces hormones that help regulate several important bodily functions.
There are three main types of thyroid cancer:
- Differentiated (papillary and follicular) thyroid cancer
- Medullary thyroid cancer
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer
Thyroid Cancer Causes
Thyroid cancer is caused by changes in cellular DNA that result in abnormal cell growth. The specific factors that trigger this unusual cell growth aren’t yet fully understood, but some cases of thyroid cancer are linked to hereditary gene mutations.
While the exact causes of thyroid cancer are still unclear, researchers have identified multiple risk factors that may increase the likelihood of developing thyroid cancer. These include:
- Radiation exposure – High levels of radiation exposure from certain medical treatments and proximity to nuclear power plants are tied to a greater risk of thyroid cancer.
- Gender – The American Cancer Society reports that thyroid cancer occurs about three times more often in women than men.
- Family history – Individuals who have a parent or sibling with thyroid cancer are more likely to develop this condition.
- Weight – Being overweight or obese increases the risk of thyroid cancer and several other diseases.
- Diet – A diet low in iodine is a well-established risk factor for thyroid cancer, although this is not a common problem in the United States.
Thyroid Cancer Symptoms
The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a lump at the base of the neck. This lump may be visible in the mirror or felt when gently pressing around the thyroid. In some cases, a thyroid lump (or lumps) can be painful or make it difficult to swallow comfortably.
Other possible symptoms of thyroid cancer include:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- A persistent sore throat or cough
- Difficulty breathing normally
- Voice changes
Thyroid Cancer Diagnosis
The large majority of thyroid lumps are benign (non-cancerous), but testing is necessary to determine if cancer is present. There are multiple types of lab tests and imaging technologies that may be used to help make a thyroid cancer diagnosis, such as:
- Blood testing to gauge thyroid function
- A thyroid ultrasound
- A thyroid scan
- A thyroid biopsy
Treatments for Thyroid Cancer
Thyroid cancer is among the most highly treatable cancers. For many patients at Tampa General Hospital, treatment involves surgically removing a portion of or the entire thyroid gland, followed by long-term hormone replacement therapy. Other commonly used treatments offered at TGH include radiation therapy, chemotherapy and radioactive iodine therapy.