What is thyroid cancer?

Your thyroid gland helps make the hormones you need to keep things like your heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and even your weight normal. Thyroid cancer grows in the cells of that gland, which is at the bottom of your neck (under your Adam’s apple).

There are different types of thyroid cancer. The good news is it is not a very common cancer. Most cases are curable with treatment.

Causes of thyroid cancer

The exact cause of thyroid cancer is unknown.

Risk factors for thyroid cancer

There aren’t very many risk factors for this condition; however, it does occur in women more than in men, and it may also be genetic. That means that if you have a history of thyroid cancer in your family, you should talk to your doctor as soon as you have any concerns or symptoms.

Another factor that increases your risk of getting thyroid cancer is exposure to high levels of radiation. This could include things like receiving radiation treatments in the head and neck area or exposure to radiation through things like nuclear power plant accidents or weapons testing.

Symptoms of thyroid cancer

At first, thyroid cancer does not have any symptoms, but when the tumor starts growing, you will start noticing signs, which can include:

  • Pain in your neck and throat
  • Having a hard time swallowing
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck
  • A lump in the thyroid area that you can feel through the skin on your neck

You might also notice changes to your voice; you might lose your voice, or it may sound hoarse. If you start having these symptoms, you should make an appointment with your doctor to have it checked out.

Diagnosis of thyroid cancer

Diagnosing this type of cancer will begin with a physical exam. In addition to looking for anything that isn’t normal, your doctor will want to know your family history of tumors, so gather any related information before your visit. If you have a history of exposure to radiation in the past, let your doctor know.

Several types of tests can help diagnose this disease:

  • A biopsy, which means checking tissue for cancer cells
  • Blood tests (to see if the thyroid gland is working the way it should)
  • Scans such as CT, PET or ultrasound imaging, to see if the cancer has spread
  • Genetic tests to see if there are other genetic problems

After getting back test results, your doctor will create a plan for treating you.

Treatments for thyroid cancer

Doctors look at several different things to find the best treatment plan. Overall health, how far along your cancer is and exactly what type of cancer is found are contributing factors to your treatment plan. Treatments for thyroid cancer are very successful and it is curable in most people.

Usually the treatment will include surgery to remove part of the thyroid. Sometimes, though, removal of the entire thyroid gland is necessary. If the lymph nodes around the thyroid are also larger than they should be, your surgeon might remove them, too.

After your surgeon removes your thyroid gland, you will need to receive more treatments to help kill any cancer cells that are still alive. These treatments can include radiation therapy or drugs made to kill cancer cells. You will also have to start taking a thyroid hormone medication that makes the same kind of hormones your thyroid used to make. You can expect to be on this medication for the rest of your life.

Recovery from thyroid cancer

It doesn’t take long for most patients to recover from their surgery. The most important thing is to keep seeing your doctor for follow-up appointments that they recommend, and to get scans or tests that let your doctor check to make sure the cancer is gone completely and has not come back.

Find a thyroid cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you