Getting Started with Thyroid Cancer
We usually don't pay much attention to our thyroid, a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck, just below the voice box. Yet it plays an important role in keeping us healthy.
It produces hormones that influence virtually every part of the body including regulating heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and metabolism as well as affecting the nervous system, muscles and various other organs.
Many thyroid cancer patients are initially unaware that they have the disease. Often, a lump is found on the thyroid during a routine physician exam or while taking a medical image of the neck for other conditions. In the vast majority of patients, the lump is simply an infection or other benign condition of the thyroid. However, about 5 percent of the time, this finding turns out to be cancerous (where the cells of the thyroid gland grow uncontrollably and form a tumor) and further treatment is needed.
Most patients do not experience symptoms. However, some may feel enlarged lymph nodes or nodules in the neck or have difficulty swallowing or speaking. Find more information on how to check your neck. Although other conditions can also cause these symptoms, it is best to have a physician examine you. For a referral to one of Cedars-Sinai's expert team members, please call 310-248-6510.
Risk Factors for Thyroid Cancer
The exact cause of many cases of thyroid cancer is unknown, but certain factors increase the risk of the disease, including:
- Age: Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer are more common in adulthood. Sporadic medullary thyroid cancer usually occurs in adults, while familial medullary cancer either is an isolated condition or is found in association with other endocrine tumors (multiple endocrine neoplasia syndromes), generally occur in childhood or adolescence. Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma, albeit rare, usually occurs in individuals over the age of 60.
- Gender: Women are two to three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men.
- Family history: Approximately five percent of patients with papillary thyroid cancer have a parent or sibling with thyroid cancer and usually have a familial form of the disease. The familial forms of medullary thyroid cancer are usually transmitted in a dominant fashion and therefore if an individual has a parent with one of these syndromes they have a 50 percent chance of having the genetic mutation that causes these diseases. There are several inherited conditions that are associated with well-differentiated thyroid cancer including papillary or follicular cancers: Gardner's syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis, Cowden's disease, and the Carney complex. If you or a family member have or have had any of these conditions, please contact our Medical Genetics Institute.
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
- History of radiation to head or neck: This was once used to treat enlarged tonsils, acne and the thymus. There is also an increase of thyroid cancer in people exposed to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in Chernobyl.
When to Seek Medical Advice
You should seek prompt medical attention if you experience a lump in your neck near your Adam's apple, hoarseness or trouble swallowing or breathing. Although other conditions cause these symptoms, it is best to have a physician examine you.