Thyroid Cancer Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Types

Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

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What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer, and what should you do if you notice any of these signs?

Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is a fairly common cancer, occurring in close to 70,000 people each year in the United States.  It is 3 times more common in women, and can occur at any age.  It is one of the types of cancer that is increasing in frequency, but thankfully, often has a very good prognosis.

There are 4 main types of thyroid cancer including:

  • Papillary - Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type, accounting for 80 to 90% of these cancers.  It does not usually spread to distant organs.  It is strongly associated with radiation exposure, and occurs most often in people between the ages of 30 and 50.
  • Follicular - Follicular cancer is the second most common type, and usually occurs in people under the age of 40.
  • Medullary - Medullary cancer does not arise in thyroid cells, but rather in C cells - cells that manufacture the hormone calcitonin.
  • Anaplastic - Anaplastic thyroid cancer is more common in older people, especially men.  It is the most aggressive of thyroid cancers.

Many people develop thyroid cancer seemingly "out of the blue" but risk factors include a history of radiation therapy, a family history of the disease, some genetic mutations such as an abnormal RET oncogene, a diet low in iodine, or a history of breast cancer.

Thyroid Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Thyroid cancer signs and symptoms usually do not appear in the early stages of the disease. Thyroid cancer is often discovered when a lump or nodule is found during a routine examination.

If you are wondering exactly where your thyroid gland lies, stand in front of a mirror and swallow.

  The area that moves up and down just below your Adam's apple and above your collar bone is your thyroid.  You can also check out these instructions on how to do a thyroid neck check.  Some of the signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer are listed here, but keep in mind that many of these symptoms may ocur with medical conditions and thyroid conditions other than cancer.

Thyroid nodule (lump) - A thyroid nodule is most commonly felt in the area around the Adam's apple.  It's important to note that thyroid nodules are fairly common, and less than 10% of these are malignant (cancerous.)

Neck or throat pain - Pain or discomfort that feels like it is in your throat or in front of your throat may be a symptom.

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) - There are many different conditions which can cause difficulty swallowing or the feeling of fullness making it difficult to swallow, only one of which is thyroid cancer.  A sensation of difficulty swallowing should always be checked out by your doctor.

Difficulty breathing - Thyroid cancer can cause shortness of breath in a few ways.

  It may cause fullness in your neck making you feel short of breath, or you could feel short of breath due to excess or insufficient levels of thyroid hormone in your blood.

Hoarseness - Like swallowing problems, there are many causes of hoarseness, but if this symptom persists you should always see your doctor.

Swollen glands in the neck - "Swollen glands" or enlarged lymph nodes in your neck may be as sign of thyroid cancer.  Having swollen lymph nodes could mean that a thyroid cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, but your nodes may swell even if this does not occur.

Persistent Cough - Thyroid cancer is one possible cause of a chronic cough, defined as a cough that persists for 8 weeks or longer.

Repeated throat clearing - Frequent throat clearing may simply be a habit, or it could be something more serious, such as a sign of thyroid cancer.

Diagnosis

If you and your doctor detect a thyroid nodule, a thyroid ultrasound may be recommended to learn more about the nodule and whether or not it has any characteristics of being cancerous.  This article discusses some of the thyroid imaging tests your doctor may recommend.

If cancer is suspected, a thyroid biopsy is needed to confirm or rule out cancer. A special type of biopsy called a fine needle aspiration is often done in cases involving the thyroid. In most cases, it is performed in the doctor's office and is painless. Various blood tests are also important in investigating a thyroid nodule.

What to Do If You Have Thyroid Cancer Symptoms

You should see your doctor if you start experiencing any symptoms. The delay in waiting for symptoms to "go away" could affect your treatment options and prognosis. The good news is that while thyroid cancer is the most common type of endocrine cancer, it is the least fatal of all types of cancer. In most cases, it is treatable -- and many times, curable.

Again, many other conditions and diseases cause symptoms similar to that of thyroid cancer. Clearing the throat, hoarseness, coughing and neck pain aren't exclusive to thyroid cancer. More than likely, your symptoms are related to a less serious condition, but it is critical to see your doctor anyway to avoid a delay in diagnosis.

Sources:

National Cancer Institute. Thyroid Cancer Treatment – Health Professional Version (PDQ). Updated 02/04/16. http://www.cancer.gov/types/thyroid/hp/thyroid-treatment-pdq

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