The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland in the lower front of your neck. Its job is to secrete thyroid hormone into your blood to reach every tissue in the body.

Thyroid hormone works like the thermostat in your house, controlling the pace of all the functions in your body. Your metabolism, body temperature, heart rate and more.

Thyroid cancer is an abnormal, invasive (malignant) growth of cells in the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is located at the front of the neck below the voice box (larynx). It makes hormones that the body needs to function.

Thyroid cancer

Most thyroid gland nodules are not cancerous.  The cause of most thyroid cancers is not known. However, as many as 1 in 10 cases of thyroid cancer are caused by radiation exposure. Examples of 2 ways that radiation exposure could increase your risk of this cancer are 1.) x-ray treatments to the head and neck when you were a child and 2.) radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing, as happened in the US in the 1950s.
Also, you may have an increased risk if you have a family history of a type of thyroid cancer called medullary cancer or a history of a hormone problem that causes high blood levels of calcium (parathyroid adenoma). Tell your surgeon if you think this may apply to you or a member of your family.

What are the symptoms Thyroid Gland cancer?

Early thyroid cancer does not cause symptoms. As the cancer grows, the first symptom is a lump (nodule) in the front of the neck.

Late symptoms of thyroid cancer are:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Hoarseness or trouble speaking in a normal voice
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Pain in the throat or neck.

These symptoms do not always mean thyroid cancer. Most growths or lumps in the thyroid gland are benign; that is, not malignant. Other problems such as an infection could cause similar symptoms. If you have these symptoms, you should see your health care provider as soon as possible to diagnose the problem.
Your health care provider will ask about your symptoms and your personal and family medical history.

Your provider will examine you. You may also have one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound scans of the thyroid gland so your provider can see how many nodules you have, how big they are, and whether they are solid or filled with fluid
  • Radioactive iodide scan, which uses a very small amount of radioactive material to make thyroid nodules show up on a picture
  • Biopsy, which is the removal of tissue to look for cancer cells.

A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether a thyroid nodule is cancerous. Your provider may be able to remove tissue in the office with a needle biopsy, also called needle aspiration. Or you may need to have your lump completely removed with surgery in the operating room. The tissue removed with either of these procedures is then examined in the lab for cancer cells.

What are the types of thyroid cancer?

There are 4 main types of thyroid cancer. The type of cancer is determined by looking at tissue samples under a microscope. Some types of thyroid cancer grow faster than others. The 4 types are:

  • Papillary
  • Follicular
  • Medullary
  • Anaplastic

Papillary and follicular cancers are called well-differentiated cancers and are the most common. Medullary thyroid cancer may be hereditary. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most malignant type, but fortunately it is the least common.

How is Thyroid Cancer treated?

The treatment depends on the type of thyroid cancer, whether it is in the thyroid gland only or has spread to other parts of the body–that is, the stage of the cancer–and your age and overall health. One or more of the following treatments may be used:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy, usually with large doses of radioactive iodine Hormone therapy, which uses hormone medicines to stop cancer cells from growing

Surgery is the most common treatment. Part or all of the thyroid gland may be removed, as well as any lymph nodes in the area that have cancer.

Radiation therapy for thyroid cancer may be done in different ways. For the common types of thyroid cancer, usually radioactive iodine is given by mouth. Because the thyroid gland takes up iodine, the radioactive iodine collects in thyroid tissue and kills the cancer cells and any remaining thyroid tissue left after surgery. Sometimes a radiation machine outside the body may be used to send high-energy x-rays to the neck to treat certain types of cancer. This is called external radiation therapy.

Thyroid hormones can be used to stop the body from making another hormone that stimulates the thyroid gland (thyroid stimulating hormone). This can help prevent thyroid cancer cells from growing. Thyroid hormones are usually given as pills.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your health care provider.
  • Keep all appointments with your provider. You will need regular checkups to check your thyroid hormone levels and to make adjustments to your thyroid medicine.
  • Ask your provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • Let your provider know if you have any new symptoms so they can be checked as soon as possible.
  • Eat a healthy diet, especially fruits and vegetables because they can help fight cancer
  • Recognize that having the cancer is an added stress in your life. Take more time for your important relationships and for rest.
  • Find a counselor to help you deal with difficult issues.
  • Spend time with people and activities you enjoy.

How can I help prevent thyroid cancer?

Health care providers do not know how to prevent most types of thyroid cancer because they do not fully understand what causes it. However, scientists have found that the medullary type of thyroid cancer can be caused by a change in a gene called RET. This changed gene can be passed from parent to child. Nearly everyone with the altered RET gene will develop medullary thyroid cancer. If the changed RET gene is found in a member of your family, your provider may suggest that other family members have blood tests for the gene. For people who carry the altered RET gene, frequent lab tests or surgery to remove the thyroid gland before cancer develops may be recommended.

For more information, contact:

American Cancer Society Phone: 800-ACS-2345 (800-227-2345) Web site:
AMC Cancer Research Center and Foundation Phone: 800-525-3777 Web site:
National Cancer Institute Phone: 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237) Web sites: and

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