Thyroid Cancer: What You Need to Know

Thyroid Cancer
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Dr. Carrie Carsello
Hospital of Central Connecticut

If you are like me, summer is a time for recreational activities, family barbecues and fun in the sun. The season can be a departure from the day-to-day routines and obligations that demand our attention. But the lazy days of summer are nearly behind us, and it’s time to get back to reality and perhaps pay more attention to our health. September marks Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to learn more about the most common endocrine cancer.

The endocrine system is the driving force behind the production of hormones, controlling growth, development, and metabolism, just to name a few important functions. The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck, is an important part of the endocrine system, producing vital hormones. Thyroid cancer is a tumor or growth located within the thyroid gland. (Dr. Carsello talks about thyroid cancer in this “Advances in Health” interview here.)

There are several types of thyroid cancer, including papillary, follicular, medullary, anaplastic and variants. Papillary and follicular carcinomas are referred to as well-differentiated thyroid cancer and account for more than 90 percent of all thyroid cancers. Variants include tall cell, insular, columnar, and Hurthle cell. If detected early, most papillary and follicular thyroid cancer can be treated successfully. Some thyroid cancers progress more quickly than others and treatment will vary according to the type.

Many patients, especially in the early stages of thyroid cancer, do not experience symptoms. As the cancer develops, symptoms can include swelling or a lump in the front of the neck, hoarseness, difficulty speaking, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty swallowing or breathing and pain in the throat or neck.

Thyroid cancer is diagnosed using a variety of exams and procedures. A doctor will examine a patient’s neck, feeling for lumps, nodules or enlarged lymph nodes. Blood may be drawn to determine the levels of thyroid stimulating hormone. An ultrasound may be done on the thyroid, to examine a nodule. An ultrasound also helps a doctor analyze whether any growths are cysts or tumors. A biopsy is done for the purpose of retrieving a sample of tissue to test for evidence of cancer.

Once thyroid cancer has been diagnosed, treatment for malignant nodules may involve the surgical removal of the thyroid gland, in a procedure called a thyroidectomy. If cancer has spread beyond the gland, surgeons may remove surrounding lymph nodes in addition to the thyroid gland.

After thyroid removal, a regimen of thyroid hormone replacement is necessary for the rest of the patient’s life.

While thyroid cancer can affect both women and men, women are three times as likely to develop thyroid cancer. It can occur at any age, but patients are generally between 20 and 60 years old. People who have a family history of thyroid cancer or exposure to radiation are at greater risk.

While a diagnosis of any cancer is unsettling, thyroid cancer is highly treatable. Surgery and other treatments have proven very successful in most cases and patients go on to live vibrant and healthy lives.

Dr. Carrie Carsello is a board-certified endocrine surgeon at the Hospital of Central Connecticut, specializing in surgeries of the thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands.

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