Many cases of thyroid cancer can be found early. In fact, most thyroid cancers are now found much earlier than in the past and can be treated successfully. Most early thyroid cancers are found when patients ask their doctors about lumps or nodules they have noticed. Others are found by health care professionals during a routine checkup. Although it's unusual, some thyroid cancers may not cause symptoms until after they reach an advanced stage.
If you have unusual symptoms such as a lump or swelling in your neck, you should make an appointment to see your doctor right away.
During routine physical exams, be sure your doctor does a cancer-related checkup that includes an examination of the thyroid. Some doctors recommend that people examine their own necks twice a year to look for any growths or lumps.
Early thyroid cancers are sometimes found when people have ultrasound tests for other health problems, such as narrowing of carotid arteries (which pass through the neck to supply blood to the brain) or for enlarged or overactive parathyroid glands.
Although blood tests or thyroid ultrasound often find changes in the thyroid, these tests are not recommended for early detection unless there is a reason (such as family history) to suspect a person is at increased risk for thyroid cancer.
People with a family history of medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) with or without type 2 multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN 2) may be at very high risk for developing this cancer. Most doctors recommend genetic testing for these people when they are young to see if they carry the gene changes linked to MTC.
For people who may be at risk but don't get genetic testing, blood tests are available that can help find MTC at an early stage when it may still be curable. Thyroid ultrasounds may also be done in high risk people.