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What is Thyroid Cancer?

Treatment for thyroid cancer typically requires removal of the thyroid.
Swollen lymph nodes are common in people with thyroid cancer.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 June 2014
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Thyroid cancer is a form of cancer which appears in the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck. The prognosis for patients with thyroid cancer is often quite good, especially when the condition is diagnosed early. In addition to a group of tumorous cancers which attack the thyroid gland, a form of lymphoma which focuses on the thyroid is also sometimes seen in medical practice.

There are four types of thyroid cancer in addition to thyroid lymphoma: medullary, follicular, papillary, and anaplastic. Anaplastic is the most aggressive form, and it can metastasize rapidly to the neighboring windpipe and lungs if it is not caught early. Fortunately, a very small proportion of thyroid cancer cases are anaplastic, with 95% of patients developing follicular or papillary thyroid cancer.

This cancer is usually detected when a patient presents with a small nodule in the thyroid gland. While the vast majority of thyroid nodules are benign, a doctor may decide to test the nodule to confirm this, usually through the use of a biopsy, in which a small sample of the nodule is taken and sent away for testing. Patients may also complain of neck pain, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing and swallowing, and some also experience enlarged lymph nodes.

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If a biopsy confirms that a patient has thyroid cancer, the treatment is surgical removal of the thyroid, followed by ingestion of radioactive iodine. The thyroid readily absorbs iodine, so the radioactive material will be quickly absorbed by any remaining thyroid tissue in the body, killing the cancer cells. Patients may also undergo a thyroid scan periodically, in which a doctor checks for recurrence of the cancer. Finally, because the thyroid produces hormones which are critical to bodily function, thyroid cancer patients must take replacement hormones for the rest of their lives. Without replacements, patients will develop hypothyroidism, a condition caused by insufficient hormone production.

The primary risk factor for thyroid cancer is family history, followed by exposure to radiation. Women are more likely to develop this condition than men, and it usually appears after the age of 30. Some genetic conditions can also predispose patients to the risk of thyroid cancer. Doctors may recommend family testing if a patient develops thyroid cancer, to determine whether or not other family members are at risk of developing the condition. People with a family history of thyroid cancer should discuss it with their doctors, to determine which steps, if any, should be taken to monitor thyroid health.

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