Thyroid Cancer

By:    Published: December 28, 2011

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Thyroid cancer is a specific type of cancer that develops in the thyroid gland. The thyroid is located in the neck, underneath the voice box. Thyroid cancer develops from cells within the thyroid that have grown out of control. These cells continue to mutate within the thyroid and in advanced cases, thyroid cancer can spread beyond the thyroid into surrounding tissue and nearby lymph nodes.

Definition

The thyroid gland is responsible for producing hormones that control a person’s metabolism. This gland consists of two lobes, the left and the right. Thyroid cancer occurs when the cells within the thyroid gland begin to transform. The mutating cells continue to grow out of control until they develop into a tumor. Tumors can be either benign or malignant. Malignant tumors are cancerous. Tumors in the thyroid gland may also be referred to as nodules. Most nodules are not cancerous.

Types Of Thyroid Cancer

There are two different cells within the thyroid: follicular cells and C cells. Follicular cells utilize iodine within the blood to manufacture thyroid hormone. C cells produce calcitonin which regulates how the body makes use of calcium for metabolism. The four prominent types of thyroid cancer are:

  • Papillary Thyroid Cancer: Papillary carcinoma stems from the follicular cells of the thyroid and is the most widespread form of thyroid cancer. This type of thyroid cancer is usually found in only one lobe of the thyroid but can occur in both.
  • Follicular Thyroid Cancer: Follicular carcinoma also begins in the follicular cells of the thyroid. This is a slow growing cancer and is not nearly as common as papillary thyroid cancer. Follicular thyroid cancer is more commonly diagnosed in people who live in places where there is not enough iodine in their food.
  • Medullary Thyroid Cancer (MTC): Medullary thyroid cancer begins in the C cells of the thyroid and may in some cases be associated with genetic inheritance. Medullary thyroid cancer is not very common, occurring in less than 5 percent of patients who are diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
  • Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer: Anaplastic carcinoma is extremely rare. It is an exceptionally aggressive type of thyroid cancer that is very complicated to treat.

Symptoms

Early on, thyroid cancer may not produce any symptoms. However, as the disease progresses, symptoms will begin to develop. You should contact your doctor immediately if you notice any changes in your neck or throat. Symptoms of thyroid cancer include:

  • Difficulty upon swallowing
  • Discomfort or ache in the neck and/or throat
  • Growth in the neck that can be felt on the outside of your skin
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in or around the neck
  • Different or gruff voice
  • Excessive coughing
  • Difficulty breathing

Causes Of Thyroid Cancer

There is no known exact cause for thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer is the result of an alteration to cells within the thyroid. The mutation of these cells is responsible for the rapid, out of control growth of the cells that ultimately leads to the development of a thyroid tumor.

Risk Factors

Though there may not be any definitive causes for thyroid cancer, there are certain risk factors that have are associated with the development of the disease. Risk factors for thyroid cancer include:

  • Being over 40 years old
  • Having been exposed to elevated levels of radiation
  • Not consuming enough iodine in the foods that you eat
  • A history of benign tumors within the thyroid
  • Inherited genetic abnormalities

Tests and Diagnosis

Though there is no specific blood test that can confirm the presence of thyroid cancer, your doctor may use a blood test to see if your thyroid is functioning properly. If blood tests indicate that your thyroid is not functioning normally, it may lead your doctor to suspect thyroid cancer.

If you are experiencing symptoms associated with thyroid cancer, your doctor will perform a complete physical examination and take down detailed medical history. If thyroid cancer is suspected, an imaging test may be used. Imaging tests such as an ultrasound are used to detect any abnormalities, nodules or tumors in the thyroid. If nodules or a mass is seen, your doctor will order a biopsy to determine if the findings are in fact cancer.

Treatment

The most commonly used treatment for thyroid cancer is surgery. During thyroid surgery, the tumor and surrounding area is removed. It may be necessary for a person with thyroid cancer to undergo a thyroidectomy, which would completely remove the thyroid. In addition, it may also be essential to have some of the nearby lymph nodes removed.

Upon the completion of surgery, the patient will usually have to undergo a radioactive treatment regimen in which any leftover healthy thyroid tissue will be killed off. In addition, individuals who have had their thyroid removed will need to remain on thyroid hormone medication for the remainder of their life.

Aside from surgery, thyroid cancer may be treated with radiation and/or chemotherapy. In addition, a patient with thyroid cancer may be invited to participate in clinical trials, in which up and coming cancer treatments are tested.

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