Most patients with thyroid cancers have excellent outcomes, especially when treated by physicians with extensive experience and specific expertise with the different varieties of thyroid cancers. Studies have shown that when treated at high-volume academic medical centers, patients have best outcomes. Our multidisciplinary experts are focused on working with our patients as the most important members of the team.
Thyroid cancer occurs when cancer cells form in the thyroid gland, the butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. There are four major types of thyroid cancer
- Papillary thyroid cancer: The most common type of thyroid cancer. Usually appears as a neck mass or mass within the thyroid (nodule).
- Follicular thyroid cancer: The second most common thyroid cancer. Typically appears in older adults.
- Medullary thyroid cancer: A rare type of thyroid cancer that makes up only around 3 percent of thyroid cancer cases.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer: An extremely rare, aggressive form of thyroid cancer. Less than 1 percent of thyroid cancer patients present with this type of cancer.
Causes and Symptoms
In many cases, thyroid cancers have no known cause. In a few cases, exposure to radiation and certain inherited genetic syndromes may play a role. These cancers occur more often in women than men. and most typically in older adults. While many patients have no symptoms at all, symptoms for thyroid cancer may include:
- Pain in the neck and/or throat
- A mass or swollen lymph node in the neck
- Ear pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Change in voice/hoarseness
- Breathing difficulty
Although some forms are aggressive, most thyroid cancers are slow-growing and indolent. Typically, these cancers are found during routine doctor visits or visits for another condition. As with all cancers, thyroid cancers have the best outcomes when caught and treated early.
While thyroid cancer begins in thyroid nodules, most nodules are not cancerous and do not cause symptoms. Nodules are solid or fluid bumps in the thyroid, and only a small number of nodules prove to be cancerous. Benign thyroid nodules can usually be left alone, but others may require treatment. If you suspect you have a thyroid nodule, make an appointment to be seen by one of our thyroid specialists.
Thyroid cancer typically first appears as a nodule in the neck. For many patients, thyroid cancer is detected by CT (CAT) scans or other imaging studies performed for other health issues. We use the newest technology and methods to accurately diagnose and assess each patient. Thyroid function or blood tests and physical exams are typically done first. In addition, your doctor may order imaging tests, including ultrasound and a fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy to collect a small tissue sample for diagnosis. In some cases, your family history may also prompt your doctor to recommend genetic testing.
Learn more about how we diagnose head and neck cancer.
Your personalized treatment plan may include:
- Surgery: The most common treatment is to remove a part of or the entire thyroid gland (partial or total thyroidectomy).
- Radioactive iodine treatments: This comes as a pill or liquid to swallow, and serves to kill any remaining thyroid cancer cells in the body.
- Radiation therapy
- Chemotherapy (in rare cases)
- Access to clinical trials and the latest research
Our head and neck cancer team, surgeons and endocrinologists have advanced training in treating these types of cancers and work closely together to ensure each patient has the best care possible. Each week, our cancer specialists hold a cancer conference to review each patient’s case as a team and make recommendations for treatment.
After treatment, we will make sure you get the follow-up care you need.
- Thyroid hormone replacement therapy: After a thyroidectomy, this medication provides the missing hormones the thyroid used to produce. It could also suppress thyroid-stimulating hormone, which might have caused any remaining cancer cells to grow. After a thyroidectomy, you will take these replacement therapies for the rest of your life.
- Reconstructive surgery
- Rehabilitation services
- Patient support services, like support groups and counseling
Thyroid Cancer - Video FAQ
Becky Massey, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, explains thyroid cancer: what it is, how it's diagnosed, who it affects and how it is treated.
Thyroid cancer is a cancer of the thyroid gland. Thyroid cancer often happens in young, healthy patients. It is one of the cancers that we have noted is happening more frequently in our country.
For many patients, thyroid cancer is the single worst thing that has ever happened to them. It is very scary to have a cancer diagnosis when you're young and healthy. Thyroid cancer, however is very treatable. Patients have excellent outcomes, and many patients can be cured by surgery alone.
Becky Massey, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, lists different types of thyroid cancer.
The different types of thyroid cancer include:
- Papillary thyroid cancer
- Follicular thyroid cancer
- Medullary thyroid cancer
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer (rare)
The most common type of thyroid cancer is papillary thyroid cancer. Papillary thyroid cancer is very treatable. People who have thyroid cancer, even when they are young and it spreads to their lymph nodes, are still a stage one and have a rate of cure when treated appropriately that can exceed 98%.
Becky Massey, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, talks about the causes of thyroid cancer.
The main cause of thyroid cancer is not clear. We know that there are certain causes that are linked to thyroid cancer. Those include exposure to radiation — for example, people who were near nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl.
In our country, radiation exposure is very rare, and it is not something that is usually the cause of thyroid cancer. Having a family member with thyroid cancer is a risk factor for thyroid cancer. The one controllable risk factor that is related to thyroid cancer is obesity, and maintaining a healthy body weight may help reduce the risk of thyroid cancer.
Becky Massey, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, explains who is at risk for thyroid cancer.
Women are more at risk to get thyroid cancer. It is much more common in women than men. Thyroid cancer can happen at any age, but we often see thyroid cancer in women in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
There are very few things that we can do to control our risk of having a thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancers can be related to genetic syndromes. Thyroid cancers most commonly happen just because a cell in the thyroid made a mistake in dividing and lost its ability to turn itself off.
Becky Massey, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, describes thyroid cancer early warning signs and symptoms.
Early warning signs of thyroid cancer most commonly include a lump in the thyroid gland or a thyroid nodule. Some people can feel the thyroid nodule on their own. Others have the nodule felt when their regular doctor feels their neck during a regular examination. Additional symptoms of thyroid cancer can include a lump on the neck or, rarely, a change in the voice or swallowing.
Becky Massey, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, explains when surgery alone can treat thyroid cancer.
Many patients with thyroid cancer can be treated with surgery alone. Surgery is curative in the vast majority of early-stage thyroid cancers. Surgery can include removal of the whole thyroid (total thyroidectomy), or it can remove half of the thyroid (thyroid lobectomy).
National guidelines have told us for the past several years that early thyroid cancers can be safely treated with removal of only half of the thyroid. Removal of half of the thyroid is important to patients because they may maintain normal thyroid function without additional thyroid hormone therapy.
Some patients have thyroid cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. In those cases, we often add radioactive iodine, which is an oral liquid that is given to patients, to kill any of the thyroid cancer left in the body.
Virtual Visits Are Available
Safe and convenient virtual visits by video let you get the care you need via a mobile device, tablet or computer wherever you are. We’ll gather your medical records for you and get our experts’ input so we can offer treatment options without an in-person visit. To schedule a virtual visit, call 1-866-680-0505.
Cancer and the COVID-19 Vaccine
There is currently no data that suggests current or former cancer patients should avoid getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Cancer can weaken your immune system, so we recommend that most patients get the vaccine as soon as possible.