Cancer is a devastating disease that has a dramatic impact on the body regardless of its system of origin. The larger discussion of cancer involves conversations on many different types and strains. However, because September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness month, we would like to take the opportunity to present the characteristics and qualities of thyroid cancer.
The information in this article will define the multiple forms of thyroid cancer, present the various signs and indicators used in diagnosis, and highlight some of the current treatment methods.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a small but essential gland located in the neck. As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid produces hormones and regulates the activity of virtually every cell in the body. Follicular cells located within the thyroid gland are responsible for secreting thyroid hormones, which exert their influence on hormone and cellular function. Regarding thyroid cancer, follicular cells are of particular importance because that is where thyroid cancer most often develops.
The Four Forms of Thyroid Cancer
At the most basic level, thyroid cancer is caused by malignant cells and tissue in the thyroid gland. The majority of thyroid cancer cases, approximately 75 percent, occur in women. Interestingly, thyroid cancer is most often diagnosed in younger individuals, between the ages of 20 and 55. The occurrence of thyroid cancer contrasts other forms of cancer that are typically seen in older individuals. Thyroid cancer can be categorized into four different types: Papillary, Follicular, Medullary, and Anaplastic. Each form has their own defining characteristics.
The most common form of thyroid cancer is papillary carcinoma, which makes up approximately 80 percent of thyroid cancer cases. Papillary cancer develops in follicular cells and grows slowly over a long period of time. If it is left untreated it can spread to the lymph nodes located in the neck and cause further disruption.
Between 10 and 15 percent of thyroid cancer cases are follicular carcinoma. This form of thyroid cancer is less aggressive than papillary but rarely spreads to the lymph nodes. However, follicular cancer is much more likely to invade other regions such as the lungs and bones. Follicular carcinoma is uncommon in the United States but has an increased rate of occurrence in locations where iodine intake is reduced.
Roughly five percent of thyroid cancer is medullary. This form of thyroid cancer, originating in the upper central section of the thyroid, is far more likely to spread to the lymph nodes and at a faster rate than papillary and follicular strains. The most unique attribute of medullary thyroid cancer is that it develops in the C cells responsible for producing calcitonin rather than follicular cells that produce thyroid hormone.
Being responsible for approximately three percent of cases, anaplastic thyroid cancer is the rarest but also most threatening form of thyroid cancer. Anaplastic thyroid cancer occurs more often in older men rather than younger adults like other forms of thyroid cancer. The significant danger of anaplastic thyroid cancer is that it spreads aggressively to other organs making it far more difficult to treat. For this reason, it is essential that anaplastic thyroid cancer be recognized early. Unlike other forms of thyroid cancer, anaplastic thyroid cancer is typically not responsive to chemotherapy and is most often treated through surgical removal of the thyroid gland. However, if the cancer has already invaded the trachea or other critical regions the tumor may be inoperable. In situations such as these, radiation treatments may be a viable option.
Recognizing and Diagnosing Thyroid Cancer
Symptoms of thyroid cancer can be difficult to detect during the early stages of development. The most common unifying symptom of each type of thyroid cancer is a lump, nodule, or swelling of the neck near the thyroid gland. These are not always easy to detect visually but can be tested at home with a simple thyroid neck check. If you identify a lump or enlargement after the self-administered test has been done, speak with a doctor about further testing and confirmation.
Other indicators of thyroid cancer include neck pain, changes in voice typically a deepening in tone, hoarseness of the throat, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and coughing that is not abated over time. However, some cases of thyroid cancer do not present any obvious symptoms. Thyroid cancer is frequently overlooked and is only detected through x-rays or imaging tests done on suspected thyroid nodules.
Treating Thyroid Cancer
Depending on the type of thyroid cancer, a doctor may recommend one or more treatment protocols. The most common treatment for thyroid cancer is a complete thyroidectomy where the thyroid is removed surgically. This is the surest way of eliminating possible recurrence of cancer and limiting the risk of cancer cells spreading to other organs. The primary drawback to this treatment is the patient will forever be deficient of thyroid hormone because the body can no longer produce its own supply. Therefore, patients who undergo a thyroidectomy must remain on thyroid hormone replacement therapies indefinitely.
Radioactive iodine treatment is another common approach. This process involves irradiating a controlled amount of iodine and introducing it to the body. The irradiated iodine circulates through the thyroid killing cancerous thyroid tissue. This approach also reduces thyroid efficacy meaning that thyroid hormone therapy is required after treatment. Other methods of treating thyroid cancer include chemotherapy, targeted drug therapies, and external beam radiation.
Prognosis of Thyroid Cancer Patients
Due to the efficacy of treatment and relatively low growth rate, many consider thyroid cancer to be one of the most survivable forms of cancer. However, even though the condition is highly survivable, it does not mean it should be ignored or disrespected. A major threat of thyroid cancer that is not often discussed is the increased risk of developing a second primary cancer. Thyroid cancer survivors have an overall 30 percent increased risk of developing cancer of the salivary gland, small intestine, colon, rectum, bones, brain, stomach, and other locations. Even after the initial treatment has concluded it is important to remain vigilant by maintaining regular check-ups and optimizing hormone levels through thyroid hormone therapies.
Spread the Word
Thyroid cancer is a serious condition that can be disastrous for an individual’s health. Fortunately, most cases of thyroid cancer can be resolved through early recognition and proper care. By sharing the information in this article, you can help limit the catastrophic outcomes associated with undiagnosed and untreated thyroid cancer. Help protect others by sharing information regarding the necessity of thyroid function and the dangers of thyroid cancer.