Learn more about thyroid cancer from endocrinologist Mabel Ryder, M.D.
I'm Dr. Mabel Ryder, an endocrinologist at Mayo Clinic. In this video, we'll cover the basics of thyroid cancer: What is it? Who gets it? The symptoms. Diagnosis and treatment. Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or someone you love, we're here to give you the best information available. What is the thyroid? This is a butterfly shaped gland that sits at the base of your neck. It's an important gland responsible for producing hormones that control a lot of vital functions in your body, such as your heart and your heart rate, your blood pressure, your body temperature, and your weight. When thyroid cells mutate, changes to their DNA cause them to grow and multiply. Where healthy cells typically die, these abnormal cells grow and grow and eventually form a tumor. Sometimes these cells invade nearby tissue, and can spread or metastasize to other parts of the body. There are several different kinds of thyroid cancer. Some grow slowly. Others can be more aggressive. Because we're able to detect small thyroid cancers with new technology, the rate of thyroid cancer incidence has gone up. However, most cancers are very treatable and the prognosis for most patients with thyroid cancer is excellent.
There are other things that can increase your chances of developing thyroid cancer. Women are three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer. And exposure to high levels of radiation, for instance, radiation therapy to the head or neck for other cancers, can increase your risk. Certain hereditary genetic syndromes may also play a role. Different types of thyroid cancer are more likely to affect different age groups. Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common form of thyroid cancer. And although it can occur at any age, it generally affects people ages 30 to 50. Follicular thyroid cancer usually affects people older than age 50. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a very rare type of cancer that typically occurs in adults 60 and older. And medullary thyroid cancer. Although uncommon, up to 30 percent of patients with medullary thyroid cancer are associated with genetic syndromes that can increase your risk for other tumors as well.
Typically, thyroid cancer doesn't trigger any signs or symptoms in its early stages. As it grows, you may notice a lump that can be felt through the skin in your neck. You may notice changes to your voice, including hoarseness of your voice, or difficulty swallowing. Some may develop pain in their neck or throat. Or you may develop swollen lymph nodes in your neck. If you're experiencing any of these issues and are concerned, make an appointment with your doctor.
Most often, diagnosing thyroid cancer starts with the physical exam. Your doctor will feel for physical changes in your neck and the thyroid. This usually is followed by blood tests and ultrasound imaging. Armed with this information, doctors may decide to do a biopsy to remove a small sample of tissue from your thyroid. In some cases, genetic testing may be done to help determine any associated hereditary causes. If diagnosed with thyroid cancer, several other tests may be done to help your doctor determine whether your cancer has spread beyond the thyroid and outside of the neck. These tests may include blood tests to check tumor markers and imaging tests, such as CT scans, MRI, or nuclear imaging tests, such as a radioiodine whole-body scan.
Fortunately, most thyroid cancers can be beaten with treatments. Very small cancers - under 1 centimeter - have a low risk of growing or spreading and, thus, might not need treatment right away. Instead, your doctor may recommend observation with blood tests, an ultrasound, and a physical exam once or twice per year. In many people, this small cancer - under 1 centimeter - might never grow and may never require surgery. In cases where further treatment is necessary, surgery is common. Depending on your cancer, your doctor may remove just a portion of the thyroid - a procedure known as thyroidectomy. Or your doctor may remove all of the thyroid. Other treatments may include thyroid hormone therapy, alcohol ablation, radioactive iodine, targeted drug therapy, external radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, in some. Ultimately, what your treatment looks like will depend on the stage of your cancer and the type of thyroid cancer you have.
If you've been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you might feel as if you aren't sure what to do next. And that's normal, everyone eventually find their own way of coping with a cancer diagnosis. But until you find what works for you, try the following. Learn all you can to help you make decisions about your care. Connect with other survivors. Talking to people who share your situation can be incredibly helpful. And control what you can about your health. Take steps to keep your body healthy during and after treatment. Eat a healthy diet full of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Get enough rest. And try to incorporate physical activity when you can. Being diagnosed with cancer can be frightening, but take comfort in the fact that most cases of this cancer are treatable. If you'd like to learn even more about thyroid cancer, watch our other related videos or visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.