Many people develop nodules, or small lumps, in their thyroid gland. Most of the time, these lumps are not cancerous. But about 60,000 U.S. residents each year are diagnosed with one of the four types of thyroid cancer.
Cancer of the thyroid, a small gland located at the front of the neck, is usually slow-growing. With proper diagnosis and treatment, most people who have thyroid cancer will be cured.
Types of thyroid cancer
- Papillary thyroid cancer: This is the most common type of thyroid cancer in the U.S. It accounts for more than 85 percent of cases. With timely diagnosis and treatment, most people survive it.
- Follicular thyroid cancer: This is the second most common type of thyroid cancer in the U.S. As with papillary thyroid cancer, doctors can usually treat it successfully.
- Medullary thyroid cancer: This type is rare and highly treatable. It sometimes runs in families. If inherited, it can occur alone (familial medullary thyroid cancer) or with other cancers (multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome).
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer: This type of thyroid cancer is the least common. It accounts for about 1 percent of cases. It is the fastest growing and most difficult to treat.
Thyroid cancer symptoms
Thyroid cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms its early stages. As it progresses, it may cause one or more of the following:
- A lump you can feel under the skin of your neck
- Dysphagia (trouble swallowing)
- Pain or swelling in your neck
- A hoarse voice or difficulty speaking
How can I get help for thyroid cancer?
The symptoms listed above are not always signs of thyroid cancer. But you should speak with your primary care doctor if you have any of them and it doesn't go away. If your doctor thinks you may have thyroid cancer, he or she may refer you to an endocrinologist, endocrine surgeon or otolaryngologist.
Care for thyroid cancer at Rush
If you are diagnosed with thyroid cancer, your treatment will depend on many factors, such as the type and size of the tumor.
Rush has a thyroid cancer team that brings together endocrine surgeons, endocrinologists, otolaryngologists, pathologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and other clinicians. They work with patients — and with each other — to determine the best course of treatment. They welcome patients seeking second opinions, and those with recurrent or hard-to-treat tumors.
Your care at Rush may involve one or more of the following:
- Thyroidectomy (thyroid removal): The most common treatment for thyroid cancer is removal of all or part of the thyroid gland. Surgeons at Rush use minimally invasive techniques, which require only small incisions. Most patients are able to leave the hospital within a day and return to normal activities within one to two weeks.
- Lymph node dissection: If the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes (small glands near the thyroid that hold white blood cells) your surgeon may also need to remove of a group of them.
- Radioactive iodine therapy: If you have a thyroidectomy to remove papillary or follicular thyroid cancer, you may take radioactive iodine, or I-131, to kill any thyroid cancer cells that remain in your body.
- Radiation therapy: Your doctor may recommend radiation therapy, though in most cases this is not needed. Radiation oncologists at Rush use advanced techniques that target the cancer with high doses of radiation while protecting surrounding tissue.
- Chemotherapy: If you have medullary or anaplastic thyroid cancer, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy, or cancer-fighting drugs.
- Complementary therapies: Rush offers acupuncture, massage and other options to help you cope with pain, loss of energy and other challenges related to your condition.
- Thyroid hormone therapy: Your thyroid gland makes hormones that help many of your organs work normally. If you have it removed, you will need to take replacement thyroid hormone for the rest of your life.
Many thyroid cancers grow very slowly. For that reason, surgery or other treatments might not always be necessary right away. For some people, the risks of treatment might be greater than the risks of thyroid cancer.
If you are among this group, doctors at Rush may recommend monitoring the tumor to make sure it is not becoming more harmful to your health.
Why choose Rush for thyroid cancer care
- Surgeon-performed ultrasounds in the operating room: At Rush, surgeons perform ultrasounds during thyroid cancer surgery to help them visualize the thyroid in real time. The resulting high-resolution images help guide the procedure, which can lead to better outcomes for patients.
- Parathyroid hormone monitoring during surgery: Patients who experience hypoparathyroidism after surgery may need to take calcium supplements. For other patients, these supplments may do more harm than good. Doctors at Rush offer advanced monitoring technology that can help predict which patients may need calcium supplementation after thyroid cancer surgery. This helps them to tailor treatment after surgery to each individual patient.
- Dedicated experts: At Rush, endocrinologists (doctors who specialize in treating hormone-related diseases) are leaders in the field. And here you can see endocrinologists dedicated exclusively to the care of thyroid cancer patients.
- Team approach: Rush has a thyroid cancer team that brings together endocrine surgeons, endocrinologists, otolaryngologists, pathologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and other clinicians. By working closely together, they can offer you a treatment plan informed by multiple specialists. This approach can be particularly beneficial for patients with recurrent or hard-to-treat tumors.
- Clinical trials: Researchers continue to study new treatment options for thyroid conditions. By participating in a clinical trial at Rush, you can access treatments that may not yet be available elsewhere.
- Quality care: The Rush University Cancer Center received the 2014 Outstanding Achievement Award from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer. Rush has received this triennial award all four times since the award was created in 2004. The prestigious award recognizes programs that excel in providing quality cancer care.