Roger Ebert and Thyroid Cancer

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Movie critic Roger Ebert's death in April 2013 has focused media attention on the topic of thyroid cancer. According to news reports, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002. He reportedly had malignant tumors in the salivary glands the following year. Reconstructive surgeries in 2006 caused him to lose part of his jaw, and he revealed in April 2013 that a hip fracture in December 2012 was related to cancer.

There has been confusion about what all this means, and media reports have not been consistent in their description of his illness. Many reports state that Mr. Ebert had "papillary cancer of the thyroid" while others state simply "thyroid cancer." Further, some reports state that his "cancer spread to his salivary glands and jaws," implying that it was the thyroid cancer that had metastasized (spread to other locations than the original site). Other reports claim that he had "cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands," implying that he had two primary cancers -- one of the thyroid, and a second cancer that developed in the salivary glands.

The confusion likely arises because of the way cancers are named. Cancers are named for the primary site, or the location in which they developed. For example, lung cancer develops in the lungs. When lung cancer spreads to the liver, it is not medically referred to as "liver cancer" but "metastatic lung cancer" in the liver. Similarly, if a papillary thyroid cancer were to spread to the salivary glands, it would be correctly termed "metastatic papillary thyroid cancer" rather than "salivary gland cancer."