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What Is Thyroid Cancer: Know the Facts

It may be a small, butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, but the thyroid — and conditions associated with it — can affect your whole body. For instance, the thyroid produces hormones that help regulate your:

  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Weight

Once fairly rare, thyroid cancer is becoming more common in the United States, possibly due to increased awareness of the disease and advances in screening technology. Indeed, most cases are detected during a physical exam or through diagnostic imaging tests.

Types of Thyroid Cancer

There are four main thyroid cancer types:

Papillary. The most common form of thyroid cancer, this condition occurs in the follicular cells of the thyroid gland, which produce and store thyroid hormone. It typically affects women ages 20 to 40 and has a good prognosis.

Follicular. This form of cancer also originates in the follicular cells. It is more likely to occur in women, particularly those over age 50, and is slightly more aggressive than papillary cancer.

Medullary. A less-common type of thyroid cancer, this form occurs in cells called C cells and often has a genetic component.

Anaplastic. This rare form of cancer usually affects older adults and can grow rapidly.

Many people with thyroid cancer don’t experience any signs of the disease. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Neck or throat pain
  • A hoarse voice
  • A lump that can be felt when touching the neck

Thyroid Cancer Is A Treatable Disease

When it comes to thyroid cancer, there’s good news: The majority of cases can be cured with treatment, especially if they are caught early. There are a number of treatment options available, including:

  • Surgery: Most people with thyroid cancer end up having some or all of their thyroid gland surgically removed. Your surgeon may also remove lymph nodes in the neck to determine whether cancer has spread. Following surgery, you must take thyroid hormone medication (such as levothyroxine) for the rest of your life.
  • Radiation: Radioactive iodine therapy may be used to destroy remaining cancerous tissue following surgery or to treat cancer that has spread or recurred. It involves taking high doses of radioactive iodine in pill or liquid form. External beam radiation therapy is an option for people who can’t undergo surgery, whose cancer has not responded to other treatments, of whose cancer has spread to the bones.
  • Medication: If you have advanced thyroid cancer, your physician may recommend drugs that directly target cancerous cells.

Your physician can help you weigh the risks and benefits of these and other approaches to determine the type of treatment that’s best for you.

If you have questions about cancer and cancer risks, visit the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center online or schedule an appointment with an expert.