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."
Papillary cancer of the thyroid (papillary thyroid carcinoma) is the most common type of thyroid cancer. It is more common in women than in men, and it usually develops in people between 30 and 50 years of age. While it is possible that papillary cancer of the thyroid spreads elsewhere in the body, this is very uncommon. Papillary cancer of the thyroid generally has an excellent survival rate. Over 95% of people with papillary cancer of the thyroid survive for over 10 years. In younger patients in whom the cancer has not spread, survival is almost 100%. If this is the type of cancer that Mr. Ebert had, he would represent a case in which, tragically, the cancer did spread to other areas of the body. There are other types of thyroid cancer that have a less favorable prognosis, but there are no reports that indicate that Mr. Ebert had another type of thyroid cancer.
While the details of Mr. Ebert's medical history may not be entirely clear based upon media reports, it is clear that his loss affects millions of cinema fans everywhere.
Santacroce, L. et al. "Papillary thyroid carcinoma." Medscape. 27 Jan. 2012.