Thyroid Cancer: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
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Thyroid cancer is caused by thyroid gland cells growing out of control. Your thyroid is in your neck, around your throat. The thyroid gland makes hormones that control growth and development. As the number of cells grow, they form into a tumor. There are four major types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary Carcinoma.
  • Follicular Carcinoma.
  • Medullary Carcinoma.
  • Undifferentiated.

Thyroid cancer that has spread from the thyroid to some other part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

We’re not sure what causes thyroid cancer. Some causes could be:

  • Not eating enough iodine in your foods.
  • Radiation to the neck at a young age.
  • Family members who had thyroid cancer.
  • Genetic changes.

Screening

Screening involves your provider looking at and feeling your neck. Some thyroid cancers are also found on tests like ultrasound and CT scans of other parts of the body. 

Signs of Thyroid Cancer

The most common sign of thyroid cancer is a bump (nodule). Larger thyroid nodules can cause:

  • Change in your voice.
  • Pressing down or pressure on parts of your throat.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Painful swallowing or having trouble swallowing.
  • Neck Pain.

Diagnosis of Thyroid Cancer

When your healthcare providers think you may have thyroid cancer, they will order tests. Some of the tests they might use:

  • An exam of your body will be done and your provider will check to see if your lymph nodes are larger than what they should be. 
  • Blood tests to check how your thyroid is working.
  • Ultrasound.
  • If an ultrasound finds the nodule may be cancer, then a fine needle aspiration (FNA) with biopsy is done. 

A pathology report sums up the results of these tests and is sent to your healthcare provider. This report is part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of your report for your records. 

Staging Thyroid Cancer

To guide treatment, thyroid cancer is "staged." This stage is based on

  • Size and location of the tumor.
  • Whether cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes.
  • Whether cancer cells are found in other parts of the body.
  • Tumor left after surgery.

Stages range from stage 1 (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage and type of thyroid cancer will guide your treatment plan. 

Treatment

Often, these treatments are used:

  • Surgery
    • Total thyroidectomy (remove the whole thyroid). 
    • Near-total thyroidectomy (leaving a small part of the thyroid gland and parathyroid glands). 
    • Lobectomy (remove a single lobe of the thyroid gland).
    • Lymph nodes may be removed during surgery if the cancer has spread to them or to test for cancer in them.
  • Supplemental Thyroid Hormone Therapy is thyroid hormone pills given after surgery in patients who had a near-total or total thyroidectomy. It is used to replace hormones no longer being made by the missing thyroid. It can also keep any left-over thyroid cancer from growing back. 
  • Radioactive Iodine Therapy can be used to kill leftover thyroid tissue and cancer cells. The radio active iodine is taken up by the thyroid cells, killing them and any cancer in them.
  • Radiation Therapy is used in aggressive types of thyroid cancer and for people at high risk of cancer coming back.
  • Chemotherapy is used to treat thyroid cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

This article is an introduction to thyroid cancer. You can learn more about thyroid cancer diagnosis and treatment by using the links below.

All About Thyroid Cancer

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Thyroid Cancers

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