Understanding Thyroid Cancer

Understanding Thyroid Cancer

Do you know where your thyroid is? Do you know what it does? Small and unassuming, most of us don’t pay it much attention to it. Still, the butterfly-shaped gland makes important hormones. These hormones regulate our metabolism – the way our body creates and uses energy.

Nestled in lower front area of the neck, it has a right and left lobe that sits in front of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (food pipe). Here, it takes up iodine from the food we eat.

Sometimes, the thyroid doesn’t function as it should. It might develop solid or fluid-filled nodules (lumps on the neck) that can be cancerous. Women get thyroid cancer leaving site icon more often than men. People between the ages of 45 and 69 are more likely to get thyroid cancer than other age groups.

Not All Nodules Are the Same

There is good news, though: Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous. People can get a nodule at any age, but older adults get them more often.

Some people may have a multinodular goiter – which means the thyroid has several nodules. These nodules are sometimes cysts filled with fluid. There can also be lumps filled with thyroid hormone, which are called colloid nodules. These are not cancerous. Without a biopsy and other tests, it’s hard to tell the makeup of a thyroid nodule and if it’s cancerous.

Symptoms of thyroid cancer often include a lump over the thyroid or somewhere else on the throat. Pain and swelling in the neck are other signs. Hoarseness, a long-lasting cough – along with trouble swallowing and breathing – are other warnings. Keep in mind, all of these symptoms can be caused by many things besides thyroid cancer. It’s important to see your doctor if you have symptoms.

What are Treatment Options?

Thyroid cancer may be treated with surgery, radioactive iodine therapy leaving site icon (RAI), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination.

Here’s a brief overview of how each works:

Surgery removes the tumor while leaving as much of the thyroid intact as possible.

Radioactive iodine therapy kills cancer cells using radioactive iodine.

Radiation therapy uses X-rays to kill cancer cells. It helps shrink tumors before surgery and gets rid of any remaining cancer cells after surgery. It’s also used to treat cancers that cannot be surgically removed.

Chemotherapy helps prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. With thyroid cancer, chemotherapy is less effective, so it’s usually used when the cancer has spread or failed to respond to radioiodine treatment.

In every case, treatments are designed to destroy cancer and keep it from growing, spreading and returning. Sometimes treatment is focused on relieving pain and symptoms that make breathing and swallowing difficult.

Fortunately, most thyroid cancers can be cured leaving site icon if it hasn’t spread. Advanced cancers can be harder to treat, especially if they don’t respond to radioactive iodine therapy. 

Today, doctors and researchers continue to look for better and safer ways leaving site icon to treat thyroid cancer.

Sources: Thyroid Nodules, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2022; Thyroid Cancer Treatment, leaving site icon National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health, 2022; Radioactive Iodine, leaving site icon American Thyroid Association, 2023; Thyroid Cancer, leaving site icon EndocrineWeb.com, 2021; Thyroid Cancer, leaving site icon American Cancer Society, 2023.

Originally published 1/8/2016; Revised 2021, 2023