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Thyroid Cancer

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Thyroid cancer forms in the thyroid gland, an organ at the base of the throat that makes hormones affecting heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and weight. It also plays a small role in regulating the body’s calcium. Papillary and follicular carcinomas are the two most common types of thyroid cancer. Additional types include medullary thyroid carcinoma and anaplastic carcinoma and very rare forms are thyroid lymphoma and thyroid sarcoma.

Main Types

  • Papillary thyroid cancer: About 80 percent of all thyroid cancers are diagnosed as papillary carcinoma. This type typically grows slowly, has a high treatment success rate, and is seldom fatal, although it sometimes spreads to the lymph nodes.
  • Follicular thyroid cancer: About 10 percent of thyroid cancers are diagnosed as follicular carcinoma, which is a subtype of papillary thyroid cancer. It is most common in people without enough iodine. It doesn’t usually spread to the lymph nodes, but can spread to other parts of the body.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC): About 4 percent of all thyroid cancers are diagnosed as MTC. It can spread to other body parts before a thyroid nodule is detected. Because it does not take in radioactive iodine, treatment is more difficult and the prognosis not as favorable.
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer: About 2 percent of all thyroid cancers are diagnosed as anaplastic thyroid cancer. This type is thought to occasionally develop from a papillary or follicular cancer. It can grow and spread quickly and is difficult to treat.


  • In 2013, 60,220 new cases of thyroid cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States.
  • An estimated 1,850 Americans will die from the disease in 2013.
  • In Texas, an estimated 2,768 new thyroid cancer cases will be diagnosed, and 130 deaths are expected in 2013.
  • Approximately 80 percent of newly diagnosed thyroid cancer patients are under 65 years of age.
  • The incidence rate of thyroid cancer has more than doubled since 1990.

Risk Factors

  • Age: Risk of developing thyroid cancer peaks in women during their 40s or 50s while men are usually diagnosed in their 60s and 70s.
  • Gender: Women are three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men.
  • Radiation: Exposure to high levels of radiation increases risk.
  • Low iodine: People who do not get enough iodine in their diet have a higher risk.
  • Family history of medullary thyroid cancer: About a third of MTCs can be traced to an inherited abnormal gene.
  • Family history of certain medical conditions: Those with a family history of thyroid disease; colon growths, or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP); Cowden disease; Carney complex, type I; or multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A or 2B syndromes have a higher risk.
  • Personal history: Individuals with a goiter have a higher risk.

Symptoms and Signs

  • Enlargement of the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Persistent cough
  • Hoarseness or voice changes
  • Persistent pain in the neck or throat
  • Noticeable lump in the neck
  • Tightness or full feeling in the neck
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Tips for Prevention

Doctors aren’t sure what causes most cases of thyroid cancer so there’s no prevention. Those with an inherited gene mutation for familial medullary thyroid carcinoma may choose to have the thyroid removed to prevent a future thyroid cancer. Genetic counseling and testing for the gene is available.

Treatment Options

Several factors determine the best course of treatment including the type and stage of the cancer and the patient’s overall health. Thyroid cancer may be treated with surgery, thyroid hormone treatment, radioactive iodine therapy, radiation, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy. Most patients receive a combination of treatments.

Source: American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, and Texas Cancer Registry