Thyroid cancer doesn't often alert you to its presence until a lump in your neck becomes noticeable. Some lumps are harmless growths called nodules, while others can be due to conditions unrelated to the thyroid gland.
The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck, so you might think that if a tumor is growing the symptoms would be obvious. Unfortunately, thyroid cancer doesn't usually cause any symptoms — until the cancer has grown large enough to show itself in the form of a lump. Complicating the picture even more, not all thyroid growths are thyroid cancer.
"A lump in the thyroid is the most common sign of a thyroid cancer," says Matthew Old, MD, of The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. Often the lump is hard to the touch and appears on the front or side of the neck.
It may be easier to notice the lump while you're eating — in fact, someone else may spot the lump moving up and down, says Mira Milas, MD, director of the Thyroid Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. And that may be all you notice in the early stages of thyroid cancer, says Dr. Milas.
But don't brush it off as nothing suspicious or serious; pay attention to the lump and how it changes. "Any persistent lump (lasting over two weeks) in the thyroid or neck should be promptly evaluated," says Dr. Old.
Variations in Thyroid Cancer Symptoms
"Symptoms between individuals can vary widely," adds Old. Most people have no symptoms, while others can have thyroid cancer symptoms significant enough to be life-threatening, such as breathing problems.
The vast difference in symptoms from person to person really depends on what type of thyroid cancer they have. Papillary thyroid cancer, the most common type, rarely causes any symptoms at all. But anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is extremely rare and deadly, can cause significant symptoms and life-threatening issues, says Old.
Advanced Thyroid Cancer Symptoms
"Thyroid cancer can be quite advanced before causing any symptoms," says Old. Signs of advanced thyroid cancer may include:
Could It Be Something Else?
It's important to know that even a lump in your neck doesn’t automatically mean that you have thyroid cancer. Because most cancers of the thyroid do not cause any symptoms, it’s more likely that the lump is a benign thyroid nodule — a non-cancerous growth.
"Most lumps or nodules of the thyroid are not cancer. The thyroid may enlarge and develop into a goiter, which is [also] not cancer," says Old. "Many things can cause lumps in the neck, ranging from benign congenital abnormalities to infections to cancers not related to the thyroid."
Even something as harmless as a toothache, a sinus infection, or some other infection could mimic thyroid cancer symptoms, says Milas, adding, "People who have lymphoma also have lumps or masses in the neck that might mimic thyroid cancer."
Testing, which includes an ultrasound of your thyroid gland to show the location of the lump, is the only sure way to determine if you have thyroid cancer.
Last Updated: 09/28/2010