Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month
By Jane Meggitt
September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. Each year, approximately 53,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with this disease and nearly 2,200 will die from it. The good news is that early diagnosis can make thyroid cancer curable — spreading thyroid cancer awareness saves lives.
Although the butterfly-shaped thyroid gland is relatively small, it is one of the body’s most critical glands. Located in the neck, the thyroid gland regulates the body’s metabolic processes. It also maintains cardiac and digestive function, bone health, muscle control and mood.
Types of thyroid cancer include:
- Papillary Thyroid Cancer — Approximately 85% of thyroid cancer falls into this category. With early diagnosis, the cure rate is high.
- Follicular Thyroid Cancer — This accounts for 10% of diagnoses. Its growth is slow because it starts in follicular cells. It is also curable when caught early.
- Medullary Thyroid Cancer — This cancer occurs due to a gene mutation. It develops in the gland’s C cells which creates a hormone responsible for blood calcium level maintenance.
- Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer— This rare cancer spreads quickly and is usually aggressive. It is the most difficult form of this cancer to treat.
Thyroid cancer risk factors include gender, with women far more likely to develop the disease than men. Women are most often diagnosed in their 40s or 50s. For men, thyroid cancer tends to occur in the 60s or 70s. However, younger people may still be vulnerable to thyroid cancer.
Genetics plays a role in some forms of thyroid cancer. Anyone with a family history of the disease is at greater risk.
Other risk factors include:
- Radiation exposure — especially for those treated for childhood cancers
- Lack of iodine in the diet
Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer
In its early stages, thyroid cancer may not cause symptoms. As the disease progresses, signs or symptoms may include:
- Palpable lump on the neck
- Vocal changes
- Swallowing issues
- Neck or throat pain
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
Early detection is key. See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of these symptoms.
Thyroid Cancer Diagnosis
Diagnosis starts with a physical exam. The doctor will touch the neck to feel for changes in the thyroid. A medical history is also taken, so the doctor can know if risk factors are involved. A blood test will reveal if there are problems with thyroid function.
Via ultrasound, a doctor may determine whether a growth on the thyroid is benign or whether there is a possibility of malignancy. Next, a fine-needle aspiration biopsy is typically performed to remove a small amount of thyroid tissue for pathology testing. In the laboratory, the pathologist will analyze the sample for the presence of cancer cells.
If cancer is present, the doctor will order imaging tests to detect whether the cancer has spread beyond the thyroid gland. Such tests may include MRIs, CT scans or nuclear imaging.
Treatment for Thyroid Cancer
A small thyroid cancer confined to the gland may not require immediate treatment. Small, slow-growing tumors may never cause a problem. Such patients are carefully monitored with annual or semi-annual blood testing and ultrasounds. If the cancer does grow, treatment starts.
However, most patients undergo surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid. Complete removal, known as thyroidectomy, means the patient must take levothyroxine for the rest of their life. This drug replaces the hormones the thyroid would normally produce. It suppresses Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone cells created by the pituitary gland. TSH could potentially trigger growth of cancer cells.
Radioactive iodine treatment, taken orally, destroys any leftover thyroid tissue post-thyroidectomy. Those whose cancer has spread beyond the thyroid or recurs after initial treatment may also receive this treatment. There are special precautions necessary during the few days of treatment to protect other people from radiation.
Patients with more advanced cases of thyroid cancer may undergo chemotherapy or targeted drug therapy. For those who cannot undergo surgery, radiation is an option.
The five-year survival rates for most thyroid cancers are high. According to the American Cancer Society, the survival rate for localized papillary thyroid cancer — that which has not spread — is nearly 100%. Even those who have some regional spread, such as into the lymph nodes, have a 97% survival rate. Those with a distant metastasis have a 64% survival rate.
Survival rates are somewhat lower for other forms of thyroid cancer. Those with anaplastic thyroid cancer have a much lower survival rate due to the aggressive nature of the disease.
Yosemite Pathology and Precision Pathology has always placed an emphasis on female health, and thyroid cancer is a primarily female disease. A woman pathologist, Dr. Jeanne Miller, founded our company more than 70 years ago. Since that time, we have become the leader in the advancement of anatomic pathology in the Western United States. We offer highly experienced board-certified cytopathologists and surgical pathologists with special interest in thyroid pathology.
Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications including USA Today, Zack’s, Financial Advisor, nj.com, The Houston Chronicle and The Nest. She is a graduate of New York University.
AACR.org – September Is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month
Mayo Clinic – Thyroid cancer – Symptoms and causes
Cancer.org – Thyroid Cancer Risk Factors
Cancer.org – Survival Rates for Thyroid Cancer