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Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is cancer of the thyroid gland in the neck. It is the fifth most common type of cancer in women in the United States. The increase is attributed to earlier diagnosis due to more sensitive imaging tests. Thyroid cancer affects women more often than men. It has a good prognosis. Risk factors include family history of this cancer, radiation exposure, and low dietary iodine.

Thyroid cancer may be detected incidentally with imaging studies done for another indication, or it can cause a visible neck lump. This cancer is diagnosed with imaging tests, such as thyroid ultrasound, and a needle biopsy. Treatment can include surgery, radioactive iodine, chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted therapy. Thyroid hormone replacement medication is usually needed after the thyroid gland is removed. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes thyroid cancer?

    Thyroid cancer is caused by alterations and overgrowth of thyroid tissue. There are several types of thyroid cancer, each originating in a different type of thyroid cell. The overgrowth occurs due to hereditary or acquired mutations (genetic changes). Risk factors associated with these changes include radiation exposure, low dietary iodine, and inherited conditions.

  • What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer?

    Thyroid cancer is often asymptomatic. Symptoms are usually related to the tumor pressing on the trachea (windpipe) or esophagus (food pipe) and include a visible neck growth, trouble swallowing, hoarse voice, coughing, and/or neck discomfort. Thyroid cancer is not associated with hormone changes, but many other cancers are linked with thyroid hormone alterations.

  • Can thyroid cancer spread?

    Thyroid cancer has the potential to spread, but local growth of the tumor within the thyroid gland is more common than metastasis. All of the types of thyroid cancer can metastasize to other areas of the body, causing symptoms such as shortness of breath or bone pain. Metastases are associated with a lower chance of cure and survival.

  • Is thyroid cancer hereditary?

    Thyroid cancer can be hereditary or acquired. Associated familial diseases have their own inheritance pattern, and some have known gene defects. They include familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (RET gene), familial adenomatous polyposis (APC gene), Cowden disease (PTEN gene), Carney complex type 1 (PRKAR1A gene), nonfamilial medullary thyroid carcinoma, and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2.

  • How is thyroid cancer treated?

    Thyroid cancer treatment is tailored to the type and stage. Active surveillance is an option when the tumor is small and benign. Treatments include radioactive iodine therapy, radiation, chemotherapy, alcohol ablation, or targeted drug therapy. Surgery may include lobectomy, thyroidectomy and/or lymph node removal. Thyroid hormone replacement is needed after the removal of the thyroid gland.

Key Terms

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Page Sources
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  1. Olson E, Wintheiser G, Wolfe KM, Droessler J, Silberstein PT. Epidemiology of thyroid cancer: a review of the national cancer database, 2000-2013. Cureus. 2019 Feb 24;11(2):e4127. doi:10.7759/cureus.4127

  2. Krashin E, Piekiełko-Witkowska A, Ellis M, Ashur-Fabian O. Thyroid hormones and cancer: a comprehensive review of preclinical and clinical studies. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2019 Feb 13;10:59. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2019.00059

  3. American Thyroid Association. Thyroid cancer. Updated October 2019.

  4. American Cancer Society. Thyroid cancer survival rates, by type and stage. Updated January 9, 2020

Additional Reading