It’s already scary to have trouble breathing, swallowing, or pain in your neck, but more often than not, it goes away.
But for some living with thyroid cancer, it’s an everyday reality.
If you have thyroid cancer, or know someone who does, knowing what to expect can help you and your loved one. We gathered information from trusted sources to help you know all you can about thyroid cancer and how to live with it.
What is Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid cancer occurs in the cells of the thyroid - your butterfly-shaped gland in your throat. Because the thyroid regulates heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, weight, and metabolism, it’s important to make sure it is healthy.
Fortunately, there’s good news! Thyroid cancer isn’t common among Americans, and it can be cured with the right treatment.(1)
Rates are increasing, but doctors believe it is because new technology allows them to find small thyroid cancers that may not have been found in the past.
What Causes Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid cancer is linked with a number of conditions but the exact cause of most thyroid cancers is unknown. But, like, other cancers, several risk factors exist that make a person more likely to get the disease.
Risk Factors That Cannot Be Changed
AGE AND GENDER
For unclear reasons, thyroid cancers occur three times more often in women than men. It can occur at any age, but the risks peak earlier for women (40s or 50s) than men (60s or 70s).(2)
Several inherited conditions have been linked to different types of thyroid cancer. Still, most people who develop thyroid cancer do not have an inherited condition or a family history of the disease. Some possible genetic risk factors include:
- Familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (FMTC)
- Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
- Cowden disease
- Carney complex, type I
- Familial nonmedullary thyroid carcinoma
Having an immediate family member (parent, brother, sister) with thyroid cancer, even with no hereditary factors, increases your risk of thyroid cancer. The genetic basis is unclear at this time.(3)
Risk Factors That Can Be Changed
More good news! Although these are still harmful, it can be easily avoidable.
A DIET LOW IN IODINE
Follicular thyroid cancers are more common in areas of the world where people’s diets are low in iodine. In the United States, most people get enough iodine in their diet because it is added to table salt and other foods.
Radiation exposure is a proven risk factor for thyroid cancer. Sources of such radiation include certain medical treatments and radiation fallout from power plant accidents or nuclear weapons.
Having had head or neck radiation treatments in childhood is a risk factor for thyroid cancer. Risk depends on how much radiation is given and the age of the child. In general, the risk increases with larger doses and with younger age at treatment.(4)
How Common is Thyroid Cancer
To begin this section, a thyroid nodule is a lump on the thyroid.
Thyroid nodules are common, and the proportion of nodules that are cancerous is low. It can be fatal or it can be stagnant, depending on the lump.
When you do have a nodule, your doctor will look at the size, growth, and view the nodule via ultrasound to see if investigation is required.
By age 50, approximately 70% of women will have nodules. Up to 95% of these nodules are benign - non-cancerous. Although they won’t be fatal, it is still important to go to your doctor and have them inspected.(5)
Early Signs of Thyroid Cancer
Thyroid cancer typically doesn't cause any signs or symptoms early in the disease. As thyroid cancer grows, it may cause:
- A lump that can be felt through the skin on your neck
- Changes to your voice, including increasing hoarseness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain in your neck and throat
- Swollen lymph nodes in your neck
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. Thyroid cancer isn't common, so your doctor may investigate other causes of your signs and symptoms first.(6)
Types of Thyroid Cancer
If you are diagnosed with thyroid cancer, specific treatment will be needed. There are five different kinds of thyroid cancer, each one different from the other.(7)
- Papillary thyroid cancer.This is the most common form of thyroid cancer. It arises from follicular cells, which produce and store thyroid hormones. Papillary thyroid cancer can occur at any age, but most often it affects people ages 30 to 50.
- Follicular thyroid cancer. Follicular thyroid cancer also arises from the follicular cells of the thyroid. It usually affects people older than age 50. Hurthle cell cancer is a rare and potentially more aggressive type of follicular thyroid cancer.
- Medullary thyroid cancer.Medullary thyroid cancer begins in thyroid cells called C cells, which produce the hormone calcitonin. Elevated levels of calcitonin in the blood can indicate medullary thyroid cancer at a very early stage with a simple blood test. Certain genetic syndromes increase the risk of medullary thyroid cancer, although this genetic link is uncommon.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a rare and rapidly growing cancer that is very difficult to treat. Anaplastic thyroid cancer typically occurs in adults age 60 and older.
- Thyroid lymphoma.Thyroid lymphoma is a rare form of thyroid cancer that begins in the immune system cells in the thyroid and grows very quickly. Thyroid lymphoma typically occurs in older adults.
How is Thyroid Cancer Treated?
When there’s a will, there’s a way, and there is one with thyroid cancer. Thankfully, thyroid cancer can be maintained with proper treatment. Below are 5 different ways thyroid cancer can be treated:(8)
- Radioactive iodine:This is the most commonly used treatment. High doses of radioactive iodine are given orally (by mouth). This treatment kills the cancer cells without harming healthy tissue.
- Radiation therapy:Used very rarely. Uses X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or prevent cancer from spreading. External-beam radiation uses a machine to send radiation to the area where cancer is spreading. Radiation can also be given internally (into the body) through needles, catheters, and other methods.
- Chemotherapy:Uses drugs to kill cancer cells or prevent cancer from spreading.
- Hormone therapy:Drugs are used to block the release of certain hormones that can cause cancer to spread or return.
- Clinical trials:These are studies of experimental therapies to gather information. Patients take part in these trials to help determine if new treatments deliver results that are safer and more effective than the current treatments.
Ways to Raise Awareness
You know about thyroid cancer. Now it’s time to raise awareness. The best way to reach this message to others is to start the conversation about thyroid cancer.
You can also go to local thyroid awareness programs and talk to activists there. They should give out awareness materials so you can take home your own tool of exposure.
Post flyers on bulletin boards at your local work or school. This will reach large amounts of people in a short time-frame.
Share your thyroid cancer story with friends, family, a stranger.
Wear or pass out silicone wristbands! Teal, pink, and blue are the colors associated with thyroid cancer. We can help you design custom rubber wristbands that raise awareness at rapidwristbands.com!
September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. You can do any of these things throughout the year, but during September it will be particularly effective. Add an awareness message to your email signature.
Lastly, donate your time or money to organizations that do research, or raise money to support research.
Final Thoughts on Thyroid Cancer
We hope that this article has been informative and helpful. Thyroid cancer, though mild among Americans, still isn’t to be taken lightly. If you have more questions, contact your doctor or the site references below offer more tools that will help you.