Thyroid Cancer

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Thyroid cancer refers to a malignant growth of the cells that make up the thyroid, an endocrine gland in the lower neck.

Thyroid cancer is the most common type of endocrine gland cancer. About 14,000 cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed each year, and about 1,100 deaths occur annually.

About the Thyroid Gland

Like all endocrine glands, the thyroid produces hormones — chemicals that circulate through the blood to direct functioning in other organs of the body. Two types of cells make up the thyroid:

  • The follicular cells produce thyroid hormone, which regulates body temperature, heart rate, the body’s use of energy
  • The C cells produce calcitonin, which processes and uses of calcium throughout the body

Types of Thyroid Tumors

A thyroid tumor grows when these cells become cancerous, dividing and multiplying more quickly than normal cells. Called thyroid nodules, more than 90% are benign (not cancerous); the rest are malignant (cancerous). 

thyroid gland diagram
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

The four main types of thyroid cancer include:

  • Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer 
  • Medullary thyroid cancer 
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer 
  • Hurthle cell cancer 

Risk Factors

Women are about three times as likely as men to develop this type of cancer. The average thyroid cancer patient is 45–50 years old when diagnosed.

Your risk of developing cancer increases due to:

  • Family history and genetic makeup    
  • Exposure to radiation    
  • Iodine deficiency  
  • Geographic location (Incidence of thyroid cancer is highest in the Hawaiian and Polynesian islands and lowest in Poland)

If you carry the RET gene, you may be advised to have your thyroid removed at a very early age to avoid the very high risk of developing medullary thyroid cancer.

Thyroid Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of thyroid cancer include the following:

  • Swelling or lump in neck 
  • Neck pain 
  • Hoarse voice 
  • Noisy breathing, wheezing 
  • Cough 
  • Difficulty swallowing

The diagnosis and prognosis of thyroid cancer requires a number of blood and physical exams, as well as imaging scans.

Treatment Options

Treatment options include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgical procedures
  • Medications
  • Lifestyle changes

Radiation Therapy Concerns 

If you have questions about the use of radiation in therapy, ask your care team. We can walk you through the process.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.