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Thyroid Cancer


Topic Overview

What is thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer is a disease that you get when abnormal cells begin to grow in your thyroid glandClick here to see an illustration.. The thyroid gland is shaped like a butterfly and is located in the front of your neck. It makes hormones that regulate the way your body uses energy and that help your body work normally.

Thyroid cancer is an uncommon type of cancer. Most people who have it do very well, because the cancer is usually found early and the treatments work well. After it is treated, thyroid cancer may come back, sometimes many years after treatment.

What causes thyroid cancer?

Experts don't know what causes thyroid cancer. But like other cancers, changes in the DNA of your cells seem to play a role. These DNA changes may include changes that are inherited as well as those that happen as you get older.

People who have been exposed to a lot of radiation have a greater chance of getting thyroid cancer.

A dental X-ray now and then will not increase your chance of getting thyroid cancer. But past radiation treatment of your head, neck, or chest (especially during childhood) can put you at risk of getting thyroid cancer.

What are the symptoms?

Thyroid cancer can cause several symptoms:

  • You may get a lump or swelling in your neck. This is the most common symptom.
  • You may have pain in your neck and sometimes in your ears.
  • You may have trouble swallowing.
  • You may have trouble breathing or have constant wheezing.
  • Your voice may be hoarse.
  • You may have a frequent cough that is not related to a cold.

Some people may not have any symptoms. Their doctors may find a lump or nodule in the neck during a routine physical exam.

How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?

If you have a lump in your neck that could be thyroid cancer, your doctor may do a biopsy of your thyroid gland to check for cancer cells. A biopsy is a simple procedure in which a small piece of the thyroid tissue is removed, usually with a needle, and then checked.

Sometimes the results of a biopsy are not clear. In this case, you may need surgery to remove all or part of your thyroid gland before you find out if you have thyroid cancer.

How is it treated?

Thyroid cancer is treated with surgery and often with radioactive iodine. It rarely needs radiation therapy or chemotherapy. What treatment you need depends on your age, the type of thyroid cancer you have, and the stage of your disease. Stage refers to how severe the disease is and how far, if at all, the cancer has spread.

Your doctor may also remove lymph nodes in your neck to see if cancer has spread beyond the thyroid.

Finding out that you have cancer can be overwhelming. It's common to feel scared, sad, or even angry. Talking to others who have had thyroid cancer may help. Ask your doctor about cancer support groups in your area.

Can thyroid cancer be prevented?

Most thyroid cancer cannot be prevented.

One rare type of thyroid cancer, called medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), runs in families. A genetic test can tell you if you have a greater chance of getting MTC. If this test shows that you have an increased risk, you can have your thyroid gland removed to prevent thyroid cancer later in life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about thyroid cancer:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with thyroid cancer:

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