Whether you or a loved one are worried about developing thyroid cancer, are going through treatment or are trying to stay well after treatment, we’re here for you every step of the way.
What is thyroid cancer?
Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your throat. It produces important hormones that regulate body functions including your heart rate, body weight and cholesterol.
Thyroid cancer develops when normal, healthy cells in the thyroid region begin to grow and function differently. These cancerous cells can begin to build up and form a mass called a tumor, which exists as a lump inside the body and can spread.
There are four main types of thyroid cancer:
- Papillary thyroid cancer – About 4 out of 10 thyroid cancers are papillary. Papillary thyroid cancer grows slowly and can sometimes spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. When detected early, papillary thyroid cancer has a high cure rate, with a 10-year survival rate of greater than 90 percent.
- Follicular thyroid cancer – Follicular thyroid cancer is less common and accounts for approximately 10 to 15 percent of all thyroid cancers. This type of thyroid cancer is more likely to spread to distant organs, such as the lungs or bones, compared to other types of cancers.
- Medullary thyroid cancer – Developing from the “C” cells of the thyroid — the cells that are normally responsible for controlling the amount of calcium in the blood — this type of thyroid cancer is very rare, with fewer than 100 cases per year diagnosed in the U.S.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer – Anaplastic carcinoma, or undifferentiated carcinoma, is the rarest of all thyroid cancers, accounting for just 2 percent of all cases. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is considered one of the most aggressive cancers and has a higher chance of spreading to other parts of the body.
Thyroid cancer symptoms
Because thyroid cancer often shows no signs, it can sometimes be challenging to diagnose. Symptoms of thyroid cancer may include:
- A lump or swelling in the neck
- Pain in the front of the neck, sometimes radiating up to the ears
- Trouble swallowing
- Hoarseness or a change in voice that does not go away
- Difficulty breathing
- A persistent cough not due to a cold
Having any of these symptoms does not mean you have thyroid cancer. While many lumps in the thyroid area turn out to be benign (non-cancerous), it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor to rule out any health issues.
Thyroid cancer risk factors
Although thyroid cancer may be less common, there are still risk factors. While some factors are out of your control, there are lifestyle choices that can increase your risk of developing thyroid cancer, including smoking, alcohol use and environmental factors.
Risk factors for thyroid cancer include:
- Tobacco use: 85% percent of head and neck cancers, including thyroid cancer, are linked to tobacco use. This includes smokeless tobacco, cigarettes and pipes. Tobacco use is the single largest risk factor for cancers of the head and neck.
- Alcohol use: Prolonged, heavy alcohol use greatly increases your risk of certain types of head and neck cancer, including thyroid cancer.
- Exposure to radiation: Exposure to radiation is a proven risk factor for thyroid cancer.
- Other risk factors: Other factors that can increase the risk of developing thyroid cancer include a diet low in iodine, environmental exposure, human papilloma virus (HPV), age and gender.
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How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?
Our team of cancer doctors are experienced in diagnosing and treating thyroid cancer at all stages, including advanced stages. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for thyroid cancer include:
- Physical examination: If your doctor suspects you have thyroid cancer, he or she will perform a physical examination, feeling for lumps in the neck and throat region. To confirm an initial cancer diagnosis or to determine whether the cancer has spread, you may be asked to undergo further testing.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests, such MRIs, CT scans and PET scans, are used to produce detailed pictures of the inside of your head or neck. These methods of diagnostic testing can determine the size of tumors and whether they have grown, shrunk or spread.
- Biopsy: During a biopsy, your doctor will remove a small sample of tissue to detect whether it contains cancerous cells (also called malignant cells). The tissue will be removed using a thin needle or during a surgical procedure and will be further examined beneath a microscope.
- Blood tests: Your doctor may order blood work to look for certain indicators of thyroid cancer or monitor how your treatment is progressing.
Treating thyroid cancer
At Geisinger, our highly trained thyroid cancer specialists include endocrinologists, surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse navigators and support staff who come together to develop a personalized treatment plan around you.
Depending on the type, location and stage of your cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended.
At Geisinger, our surgeons use the latest techniques to treat thyroid cancer, including minimally invasive surgery, to offer you the best outcomes and path for healing. Our surgeons are highly trained and board certified, which means they have passed an optional national exam to demonstrate their medical expertise. Many of our surgeons are also fellowship trained, holding additional training in specific types of cancer surgery.
Surgery is the most widely used method for treating thyroid cancer:
- Thyroidectomy, in which cancerous parts of the thyroid or lymph nodes in the neck may be removed.
Those whose entire thyroid has been removed will need to take replacement thyroid hormone pills for the rest of their life. These pills supply the missing hormone your thyroid would normally produce and suppress the production of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from your pituitary gland. Proper TSH regulation reduces the changes for future cancerous cell growth.
Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to slow the growth of or shrink tumors.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in pill form.
Your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that still remains and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which is known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
Our team includes doctors called medical oncologists who specialize in chemotherapy. Our patients have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Keeping you comfortable while you undergo your treatment is important to us. Our state-of-the-art clinics, many which have been recently renovated, offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you stay comfortable during treatment.
Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells, with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Our board-certified cancer doctors and highly skilled clinical team deliver conventional radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send X-ray radiation (photons) to the tumor from outside the body
- Internal radiation (brachytherapy), which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body through radioactive tubes or radioactive seeds
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the tumor to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to localize the radiation beam daily and treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatments. This includes Cone Beam CT scans to accurately view the tumor and target it during treatment.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), which uses precise conformal beams of radiation to focus high doses of radiation to just the tumor, with very little damage to surrounding healthy tissues
Thyroid cancer care at Geisinger
Cancer is unique to each person, which is why Geisinger’s cancer care team gets to know you along your journey. While some of our cancer specialists are trained in treating specific cancers, our entire team works together to help you fight your cancer — every step of the way.
Our thyroid cancer specialists are dedicated to providing innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. We offer:
- Unmatched expertise – Our cancer team consists of surgeons, doctors and specialists, many of whom are fellowship trained. This team of highly trained specialists treats many patients with thyroid and other cancers each year, and is focused on delivering the most personalized, excellent care that is suited to each patient’s needs.
- World-class care, close to home – With locations throughout central, northeast and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our thyroid cancer specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far.
- Leading-edge clinical trials – Our extensive history with cancer research and clinical trials gives you access to new treatments before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help you get better even if standard approaches haven’t worked. Find a clinical trial.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Our cancer genetics programs determine whether you face a higher-than-normal cancer risk. Special programs such as MyCode®, which are only available at Geisinger, detect the earliest signs of certain cancers so you can start treatment right away. Our care and guidance may even help you avoid a cancer diagnosis. Learn more or sign up for MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program – Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.