The majority of patients present with a nodule on their thyroid that typically does not cause symptoms. Remember, over 99% of thyroid nodules are not cancer. But when thyroid cancer does begin to grow within the thyroid gland, it almost always does so within a discrete nodule within the thyroid. Thyroid cancer is an uncommon type of cancer. The most common (and sometimes only) symptom of thyroid cancer is the development of a painless lump or swelling in the throat.
The Thyroid Gland
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of the throat. It consists of two lobes that sit either side of the windpipe.
The main purpose of the thyroid gland is to release hormones, which are a type of chemical that have a powerful effect on many of the functions of the human body.
The thyroid gland releases three separate hormones:
- triiodothyronine – which is known as T3
- thyroxine – which is known as T4
The T3 and T4 hormones help regulate the body’s metabolic rate. The metabolic rate is how fast the various processes of the body work, such as how quickly the body burns calories.
Excess levels of T3 and T4 in the body would make someone to feel overactive and cause them to lose weight. Not enough T3 and T4 would make feel someone feel ‘slow’ and sluggish, and cause them to gain weight.
Calcitonin helps control the levels of calcium in your blood. However, calcitonin is not essential for normal health as the body uses other ways to control calcium. Calcium is a mineral that has many important functions, such as building strong bones.
How Common is Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid cancer is one of the rarer types of cancer, accounting for only 1% of all cancer cases in England. Each year in England and Wales there are an estimated 1,800 new cases of thyroid cancer. Women are two to three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men. This may be due to hormonal changes associated with the female reproductive system.
Most cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed in people who are 30 to 50 years of age. Rates of reported thyroid cases have risen by around 50% over the last 30 years around the world. It is unclear whether this trend represents a true rise, or whether health professional are simply getting better at diagnosing cases of thyroid cancer that in the past would have been overlooked, but the debate continues to include environmental risk factors such as radiation and pesticide use.
Typical Thyroid Cancer Treatment Overview
1. Thyroid cancer is usually diagnosed by sticking a needle into a thyroid nodule or removal of a worrisome thyroid nodule by a surgeon.
3. The pathologist decides the type of thyroid cancer: papillary, follicular, mixed papilofollicuar, medullary, or anaplastic.
4. The entire thyroid is surgically removed; sometimes this is done during the same operation where the biopsy takes place. He/she will assess the lymph nodes in the neck to see if they also need to be removed. In the case of anaplastic thyroid cancer, your doctor will help you decide about the possibility of a tracheostomy.
5. About 4-6 weeks after the thyroid has been removed, the patient will undergo radioactive iodine treatment. This is very simple and consists of taking a single pill in a dose that has been calculated for the patient. The patient goes home and avoids contact with other people for a couple of days (so they are not exposed to the radioactive materials).
6. A week or two after the radioactive iodine treatment the patient begins taking a thyroid hormone pill. No one can live without thyroid hormone, and if the patient doesn’t have a thyroid anymore, he or she will take one pill per day for the rest of their life. This is a very common medication (examples of branded drug names include Synthroid, Levoxyl, and Armour Thyroid).
7. Every 3-6 months the patient returns to his endocrinologist for blood tests to determine if the dose of daily thyroid hormone is correct and to make sure that the thyroid tumor is not coming back. The frequency of these follow up tests will vary greatly from patient to patient. Endocrinologists are typically quite good at this and will typically be the type of doctor that follows this patient long-term.
What's the Prognosis?
Most thyroid cancers are very curable. In fact, the most common types of thyroid cancer (papillary and follicular) are the most curable. In younger patients, both papillary and follicular cancers have a more than 97% cure rate if treated appropriately.
The bottom line is that most thyroid cancers are papillary thyroid cancer, and this is one of the most curable cancers of all cancers that humans get. Treated correctly, the cure rate is extremely high.
Medullary cancer of the thyroid is significantly less common, but has a worse prognosis. Medullary cancers tend to spread to large numbers of lymph nodes very early on, and therefore require a much more aggressive operation than the more localized thyroid cancers, such as papillary and follicular. This cancer requires complete thyroid removal plus a dissection to remove the lymph nodes of the front and sides of the neck.
The least common type of thyroid cancer is anaplastic which has a very poor prognosis. Anaplastic thyroid cancer tends to be found after it has spread and is incurable in most cases. It is very uncommon to survive anaplastic thyroid cancer, as often the operation cannot remove all the tumor. These patients often require a tracheostomy during the treatment, and treatment is much more aggressive than for other types of thyroid cancer–because this cancer is much more aggressive.
What About Chemotherapy?
Thyroid cancer is unique among cancers. In fact, thyroid cells are unique among all cells of the human body. They are the only cells that have the ability to absorb iodine. Iodine is required for thyroid cells to produce thyroid hormone, so they absorb it out of the bloodstream and concentrate it inside the cell.
Most thyroid cancer cells retain this ability to absorb and concentrate iodine. This provides a perfect “chemotherapy” strategy. Radioactive Iodine is given to the patient with thyroid cancer after their cancer has been removed. If there are any normal thyroid cells or thyroid cancer cells remain in the patient’s body (and any thyroid cancer cells retaining this ability to absorb iodine), then these cells will absorb and concentrate the radioactive “poisonous” iodine.
Since all other cells of our bodies cannot absorb the toxic iodine, they are unharmed. The thyroid cancer cells, however, will concentrate the poison within themselves and the radioactivity destroys the cell from within. No sickness. No hair loss. No nausea. No diarrhea. No pain.
Most, but not all, patients with thyroid cancer need radioactive iodine treatments after their surgery. This is important to know. Almost all, however, should have the iodine treatment if a cure is to be expected.