Thyroid Cancer Signs and Symptoms

A Look at the Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Carcinoma

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Neck enlargement, a lump, or neck pain are some symptoms of thyroid cancer. Istockphoto

Thyroid cancer is the development of cancerous cells in your thyroid gland, a gland that is part of your endocrine system. Your thyroid is located in your neck, and the "wings" of this small, butterfly-shaped gland sit on each side of your trachea (windpipe), near your Adam's apple. Thyroid cancer, especially early in its development, may not cause any symptoms.

As thyroid cancer grows, develops, and advances, it is more likely to cause noticeable symptoms.

The most common sign of thyroid cancer is a lump or nodule in your neck. The most common location for the lump or nodule is in the front of your neck around your Adam's apple area. You may not notice or be able to see the lump in your neck, but others may be able to see it or feel it. Actually, it's not uncommon for lumps to be discovered by your doctor, dentist, hairdresser, massage therapist, or partner before you notice them. 

Cancerous thyroid nodules are also often found by accident during x-rays, ultrasounds, MRIs, or other imaging tests being performed for other reasons, such as when evaluating neck or head pain, or as a result of having dental x-rays. 

Some of the other signs and symptoms that may point to the potential for thyroid cancer include the following:

  • Changes to a neck lump or nodule, or rapid growth in a pre-existing thyroid nodule.  
  • Enlargement of your neck, which may be visible, or you may be able to feel.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck, sometimes referred to as "swollen glands." 
  • Hoarseness, difficulty speaking normally, and changes in your voice.
  • Difficulty swallowing or a choking feeling when swallowing. 
  • Difficulty breathing, or chronic wheezing when breathing.
  • Pain in your neck or throat, including pain from your neck to your ears. You should see a doctor if you have neck or throat pain that lasts more than a few weeks. 
  • Sensitivity in your neck, such as discomfort with neckties, turtlenecks, scarves, and necklaces.
  • A persistent or chronic cough that is not due to allergies or illness.
  • Asymmetry in your thyroid, such as a large nodule on one side, but no nodules or enlargement on the other side.
  • Nodules in your neck that when manipulated, give the impression that the entire thyroid is moving. This is often a sign of more aggressive forms of thyroid cancer.
  • Nodules that cause your windpipe to go to one side of your neck.
  • Nodules that cause superior vena cava syndrome, a condition that involves obstruction of the superior vena cava, a vessel that carries circulating blood into your heart. Symptoms of superior vena cava syndrome include hoarseness, pin in your chest, difficulty swallowing, swelling of veins in your throat and lungs, fluid buildup and swelling in the arms, coughing up blood from your lungs and/or throat, rapid breathing, and skin that looks blue due to insufficient oxygen. 
  • Some particularly aggressive thyroid tumors can go to the brain and cause neurological symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, balance problems, coordination issues, weakness in the arms, legs, or one side of the body, nausea, vomiting, mental confusion, difficulty speaking, blurred vision, among others. 

    If You Have Thyroid Cancer Symptoms

    If you have any of these thyroid cancer symptoms, you should see your doctor right away for a complete evaluation, including a clinical examination of your thyroid by a trained physician, imaging tests (such as ultrasound or MRI), and often a fine needle aspiration biopsy (called an FNA) of your thyroid gland. 

    Blood tests, genetic tests, laryngoscopy, and other tests may also be done to diagnose or rule out thyroid cancer.

    A Word from Verywell

    The symptoms of thyroid cancer are frequently subtle and can be difficult to detect. Many of the most obvious symptoms are not the result of the thyroid cancer, but the enlargement of the cancerous nodule.

    One thing you can do is to regularly check your own neck. Find out how to do an endocrinologist-approved "Thyroid Neck Check" to look for thyroid nodules, lumps, or enlargement yourself at home. Also, learn more about whether you have any of the common risk factors for thyroid cancer and, if thyroid cancer is suspected, the specific tests and procedures that are used to diagnose thyroid cancer.

    Sources:

    Braverman, MD, Lewis E., and Robert D. Utiger, MD. Werner and Ingbar's The Thyroid: A Fundamental and Clinical Text. 9th ed., Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (LWW), 2005.

    National Cancer Institute -- Thyroid Cancer Page

    What You Need to Know About Thyroid Cancer, National Cancer Institute

    American Cancer Society: Thyroid Cancer Guide

    American Cancer Society: Thyroid Cancer Statistics

    Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association (ThyCa)

     

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