Thyroid Cancer and Disorders: How to Spot Them and How to Treat Them

February 2, 2021
William Hanner D.O.

The thyroid is a small organ that most people do not often think about—until it starts causing issues. And while it may be a small gland, your thyroid has a significant effect on many other parts of the body—including your brain, gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system, bones, blood cells, gallbladder, liver, body temperature and more.

As many as 20 million Americans suffer from some type of thyroid disorder, yet the majority of those people are unaware of their condition. So, when thyroid symptoms arise, it is important to address them promptly and find solutions that keep you healthy. 

Here is a look at how the thyroid functions, and what happens when thyroid problems occur.

What Does the Thyroid Gland Do?

The thyroid gland is located at the front of your neck, just below the Adam’s apple and above the sternum. The entire gland is about the size of a plum, and it is made up of two lobes that lie on both sides of your windpipe. For this reason, some symptoms of thyroid problems are related to the neck, throat and voice.

Your thyroid plays a vital role in regulating your metabolism and promoting healthy cells and tissues in the body. It is activated by the pituitary gland, which releases what is known as the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH activates the thyroid so it will release a steady stream of thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which then promote healthy metabolism throughout your body. 

Your T3 and T4 levels reflect how well your thyroid is functioning, which is why these levels are tested when a thyroid problem is suspected. Different disorders, as well as cancerous growths, can make the thyroid malfunction, causing the levels of your thyroid hormones to be too high or too low.

What is a Thyroid Nodule?

A small growth in the thyroid gland is called a thyroid nodule. These can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous.) They can release thyroid hormone or be inactive. 

They are typically monitored with routine ultrasound imaging - every 6 months, annually, or less often - to monitor for growth. Depending on what is found on imaging, a biopsy might be warranted. This is typically done under ultrasound guidance with a fine needle aspiration or FNA. This biopsy is to determine if the nodule is cancerous or noncancerous.

How Common Is Thyroid Cancer?

There are close to 53,000 new cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society. The good news is that today’s testing options are better than ever at detecting thyroid cancer, so treatment is likely to begin earlier, when these cancers are more treatable. 

What Are the Different Types of Thyroid Cancer?

Differentiated Thyroid Cancer

This umbrella term refers to the types of thyroid cancer that arise from damaged follicular cells—the cells that make up the thyroid. The two main forms of differentiated thyroid cancers are:

  • Papillary thyroid cancer — This is the most common form of thyroid cancer, accounting for 85% of thyroid cancer cases. It occurs most often in people aged 30-50, and tends to affect women more often than men. If caught early, when the tumor is small, it is less likely to spread and more likely to be cured.
  • Follicular thyroid cancer — This type of cancer most often affects people over age 50. Hurthle cell cancer is a rarer but more aggressive form of this cancer.

Other Types of Thyroid Cancer

  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer - This is the most aggressive form of thyroid cancer. It can be difficult to successfully treat, and is usually diagnosed as stage IV cancer. But it is also very rare.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer begins in the thyroid’s “C” cells, which produce a hormone called calcitonin. Age is not a factor in the development of this cancer. It can be caught early with a blood test for calcitonin levels.
  • Thyroid lymphoma arises from the thyroid gland’s immune cells, and is very rare.
  • Thyroid sarcoma arises in the thyroid’s connective tissue cells, and is also rare.

What Are the Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer?

People who may have an issue with their thyroid are likely to experience some or all of these symptoms:

  • Lump or nodes in the neck that can be felt beneath the skin
  • Abnormal or prolonged vocal changes
  • Increased hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Neck or throat pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Family history of thyroid disorders or thyroid cancers

Unfortunately, it is common for people to experience no symptoms until thyroid cancer has progressed to a later stage. So, if you do experience any of these signs, it is important to set up an appointment with a medical professional right away to have your condition assessed.

How Fast Does Thyroid Cancer Spread?

Most forms of thyroid cancer spread relatively slowly—including the most common form, papillary thyroid cancer. Others, such as anaplastic thyroid cancer, are usually in its advanced stages by the time they are detected. Thyroid cancer cells may eventually spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body, making it important to have any thyroid symptoms diagnosed as soon as possible.

However, thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable and survivable forms of cancer. 

How are Thyroid Nodules and Thyroid Cancer Treated?

Depending on the biopsy findings and the stage and type of thyroid cancer you are diagnosed with, your treatment will need to be individualized. Some of the options you and your doctor may consider include:

  • Thyroidectomy — The most common approach to thyroid cancer is surgical removal of the thyroid. This is an effective and curative approach for early stages of thyroid cancer. 
  • Lobectomy — If the tumor is small enough and located in only one lobe of the thyroid, a lobectomy may be performed to remove just half of the thyroid gland.
  • Removal of lymph nodes — If it is determined that the thyroid cancer has spread, lymph nodes may be removed at the time of surgery.
  • Radioactive iodine therapy — After surgery occurs, your doctor may recommend this treatment to help prevent a recurrence, especially if the initial cancer was in an advanced stage or has spread to lymph nodes.
  • Chemotherapy and targeted drugs — This approach may be used for higher stage cancers which have spread.

What Other Thyroid Disorders Are Common?

Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland produces too little hormone for your body’s needs. The most common form is Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks and destroys the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones. Common symptoms include fatigue, intolerance of cold, weight gain, depression, and inability to concentrate.

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much of its hormone. The most frequent form of it is Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the thyroid gland to become enlarged and overactive. Common symptoms include weight loss, intolerance of heat, anxiety, and puffy, inflamed or bulging eyes.

A blood test to assess your TSH, T3, and T4 levels will help determine if you have one of these thyroid disorders.

Get Help for Your Thyroid Symptoms so You Can Enjoy Your Life

If you are having symptoms that you suspect may be related to your thyroid, do not ignore them. Our caring medical team will work with you to identify what is causing any thyroid issue you are having and determine how best to address it in a way that suits your personal needs. Contact us for a consultation.

Related Services