Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD
Each year, about 20,000 people in the U.S. develop cancer of the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped organ located on the lower front of the neck just below the Adam's apple. The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones that regulate metabolism. Thyroid cancer can occur in anyone, but certain groups of people are at greater risk for developing the condition. These include:
- Older people - Thyroid cancer is more common in people over 30 years of age than in younger adults or children.
- Women are two to three times more likely than men to develop thyroid cancer.
- Caucasians in the U.S. are at greater risk than African Americans for development of thyroid cancer.
- Exposure to radiation, including radiation therapy or nuclear fallout, poses an increased risk for developing thyroid cancer.
- People with a family history of thyroid cancer or who have rare syndromes involving tumors of multiple glands are at a greater risk for thyroid cancers.
There are different types of thyroid cancer (carcinoma of the thyroid), and the most common types (papillary carcinoma and follicular carcinoma) are highly curable if detected early. Up to 97% of these common types of thyroid cancer that occur in younger people are completely cured with appropriate treatment. Less common types, including medullary carcinoma and anaplastic carcinoma, tend to spread more rapidly and extensively than the other types and have a worse prognosis.
Most commonly, thyroid cancers in the early stage produce no symptoms. As the cancer grows, a small lump or nodule can be felt in the neck. The vast majority of thyroid nodules are caused by benign conditions, but about one per cent of these lumps represent early stages of thyroid cancer. If the cancer spreads, it can cause symptoms that include:
- Problems with swallowing
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
- Breathing difficulty
- Pain in the throat and/or neck
Remember, 99% of nodules in the thyroid gland are benign, but only your doctor can determine if a lump in your neck is cancerous. Even the symptoms above can be caused by infections and other benign conditions. If you have a lump in the neck or have the above symptoms, you should visit your doctor to determine the cause of your symptoms.
For more, please read the Thyroid Cancer article.