A butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck, the thyroid plays an important role in a person’s well-being. Like the pituitary gland, it is part of the endocrine system, which regulates specific body functions. The thyroid generates hormones that control the body’s heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and metabolism.
Thyroid cancer develops when cells of the thyroid grow uncontrollably. Fortunately, most thyroid tumors are benign (non-cancerous).
Cancer of the thyroid is uncommon, accounting for about 1% of all cancers diagnosed. However, it has become the 8th most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. Fortunately for those with the disease, there’s hope. Early detection, accurate diagnosis, precise treatment and scheduled follow-up can result in a healthy future.
Types of thyroid cancer include:
In the early stages of thyroid cancer, no symptoms are present. As the cancer develops, symptoms may include:
The above symptoms are often due to benign, non-cancerous conditions such as goiter or infection. However, due to their possible severity, it is recommended that anyone with these symptoms see a doctor to be diagnosed as soon as possible.
It is difficult for doctors to determine why one person develops a thyroid cancer and another does not. However, research has provided evidence showing that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop the disease. The following risk factors have been associated with an increased chance of developing thyroid cancer.
Radiation: Individuals exposed to radiation are more likely to develop papillary or follicular thyroid cancer.
Family history of medullary thyroid cancer: Medullary thyroid cancer may be passed down from parent to child through a change on the RET gene. Nearly everyone with this changed gene develops the disease, which may occur alone or with other cancers such as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) disorder.
Family/personal history of goiters or colon growths: Some people with a family history &/or personal history of multiple thyroid nodules are at greater risk of developing papillary thyroid cancer.
Gender: Females are three times more likely than males to develop thyroid cancer.
Age: Thyroid cancer most commonly occurs in people over the age of 45. Anaplastic thyroid cancer mainly occurs in people over the age of 60.
Iodine: Scientists are still researching iodine as a potential risk for developing thyroid cancer. Studies have suggested that a diet too low in iodine (a substance found in shellfish, iodized salt) may increase the risk of developing follicular thyroid cancer. Other studies have shown that a diet too rich in iodine may increase the risk of papillary thyroid cancer. More research is necessary to determine whether or not iodine is a risk factor for thyroid cancer.
The more risk factors a person has, the greater one’s chance of developing thyroid cancer. However, many people with known risk factors for thyroid cancer do not develop the disease. People with a family history of the disease or those who think they may be at risk should discuss this concern with their doctor. Your doctor may be able to suggest genetic blood tests and other ways to reduce you and your family’s risk of developing thyroid cancer.
Most early thyroid cancers are discovered when patients ask their doctors about lumps or nodules they have noticed. If you believe you have symptoms such as a lump or other abnormal growth on your neck, it is recommended that you see a doctor as soon as possible to have it examined. Some cancer professionals recommend that people perform a self examination of their necks twice yearly to search for any lumps.
People with a family history of medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) with or without type 2 multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN 2) may be at very high risk for developing this cancer. Most doctors recommend genetic testing for these people when they are young to see if they carry the gene for MTC.
To better understand the symptoms that may suggest thyroid cancer, your doctor may ask a series of questions regarding personal and family medical history. One or more of the following tests may also be performed:
Staging of thyroid cancer consists of analyzing the size of the nodule, whether the cancer has spread, and if so, to what other parts of the body. Thyroid cancer spreads most often to the lymph nodes, lungs, and bones. When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of cancer cells and the same name as the original cancer. Doctors call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.
Staging may involve one or more of these tests:
People with thyroid cancer have many treatment options. Treatment usually begins within a few weeks after the diagnosis, but you will have time to talk with your doctor about treatment choices and get a second opinion.
The choice of treatment depends on:
Most people with thyroid cancer have surgery. The surgeon may remove all or part of the thyroid. The following are possible types of surgeries to treat thyroid cancer:
Total thyroidectomy: Complete removal of the entire thyroid through an incision in the neck.
Lobectomy: Some people with follicular or papillary thyroid cancer may have only part of the thyroid removed. The surgeon removes one lobe and the isthmus. Some people who have a lobectomy later have a second surgery to remove the rest of the thyroid.
Less often, the remaining thyroid tissue is destroyed by radioactive iodine therapy.
Thyroid cancer is a journey that no one needs to take alone. There are many forms of support to help you through every stage of thyroid cancer : diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. Whether you meet with other cancer survivors like yourself, use complementary therapies or individual coping mechanisms, help is available in many forms. Listed below are just some of the ways to find help...and hope.
Getting together with other cancer patients in a support group is a valuable coping tool. Support groups are usually focused on a single disease or topic, such as breast cancer survivors or people coping with life-changing side effects from their cancer or cancer therapy. These groups allow participants to meet others like themselves and seek strength from each other. Most major cities and cancer hospitals offer support groups that meet weekly or monthly. There are also dozens of online support web sites or message boards for those who may not have access to a traditional meeting.
Complementary therapies are used in conjunction with cancer treatment, in an effort to reduce treatment side effects, ease depression and anxiety and help cancer patients take their mind off the negative aspects of their situation. Complementary therapies may include mind-body exercises like yoga, tai chi and Qi gong; visualization or guided imagery; using art or music as therapy and self-expression; and traditional Eastern medicine such as acupuncture.
Staying physically active as much as possible during cancer treatment has many positive benefits. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, a hormone that helps elevate mood, as well as decreasing feelings of fatigue.
Exercises for cancer patients can range from simple stretches done in the bed or chair, to more active pursuits such as walking or light gardening work. However, it’s important not to push yourself too hard. Check with your doctor before attempting any physical activity to make sure you are up to it.
Many people find it helpful to keep a journal of their cancer treatment experience. It may be as simple as recording symptoms and side effects into a notebook, or may include personal emotions and opinions about what they may be going through. Journals can be private, like a diary, or shared with loved ones and even strangers.
Increasingly, people are turning to the Internet to share their cancer journey with the world at large and to seek out others with similar experiences. Many cancer patients have begun their own web log, or “blog” to publicize their battle with cancer. Twitter, a mini-blogging technology that limits posts to 140 characters, has also proven to be a helpful tool for cancer patients to keep friends updated and reach out to others.