Thyroid Cancer: Five Things You Need to Know

By Melanie Graham

Thyroid cancer is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the thyroid gland. Found more often in women, the National Cancer Institute estimates 60,022 new cases of thyroid cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2013.

Like most forms of cancer, thyroid cancer can be broken down into several different types or subgroups, says Jochen Lorch, MD, director of Dana-Farber’s Thyroid Cancer Center. Most types of thyroid cancer are treatable and in some cases, curable, Lorch says.

Below, Lorch provides some more information about the disease:

1. What are the different types of thyroid cancer?

  • Jochen Lorch, MD
    Jochen Lorch, MD

    Papillary – This is the most common type of thyroid cancers and is classified as a “differentiated” thyroid cancer. Papillary thyroid cancer is a slow-growing cancer that forms into small, finger-like shapes.

  • Follicular – A slow-growing thyroid cancer that forms in the follicular cells of the thyroid. It is also classified as a differentiated thyroid cancer.
    • Poorly differentiated thyroid cancer – A sub-type of papillary and follicular thyroid cancer that is frequently also classified as differentiated thyroid cancer.
  • Anaplastic – A rare, aggressive type of thyroid cancer categorized as an “undifferentiated” thyroid cancer. The malignant cells in this type of cancer look very different from normal thyroid cells. 

2. What are the risk factors for thyroid cancer?

Typically, thyroid cancer is found more often in women. Of the estimated 60,022 new cases diagnosed in 2013, 45,000 will be women. Some inherited syndromes can also predispose people to thyroid cancer, including multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A and type 2B. Other risk factors include radiation exposure and having a history of goiters.

3. What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer?

In most cases, a lump in the neck is detected by a physician during a routine physical exam. Other problems that could be signs of thyroid cancer include trouble breathing, trouble swallowing, or hoarseness.

4. How do doctors test for thyroid cancer?

If a lump is found, patients are sent to an endocrinologist where an ultrasound is done. The endocrinologist will also use a small needle to remove some tissue or fluid from the thyroid to examine it for cancer cells.

5. What are the treatment options for thyroid cancer?

The primary treatment for thyroid cancer is surgery. This can involve removing part of or the entire thyroid. If the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, a lymphadenectomy may be done as well. Subsequent surgeries can be done to remove cancer cells that return.

After surgery, a doctor may use radioactive iodine therapy for differentiated thyroid cancers (papillary and follicular).  With these treatments, the cure rate for differentiated thyroid cancers is around 90 percent

There are also a limited number of chemotherapy options available for recurrent or aggressive forms of thyroid cancer. Patients with these forms of thyroid cancer may also consider taking part in a clinical trial. Find out more about current thyroid cancer clinical trials by visiting the Dana-Farber clinical trials webpage or the National Cancer Institute clinical trial database.