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Thyroid Cancer: Symptoms, causes, prevention, and treatment

Dr. Rashmi ByakodiSept 20, 2022

Although Thyroid Cancer is less common than many other forms of cancer, it still affects thousands of people around the world. In this article, you will find the facts you need to know about Thyroid Cancer. You’ll also learn in detail about its symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.

Thyroid Cancer

What is Thyroid Cancer?

Thyroid Cancer is a disease in which abundant abnormal cells grow in the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is placed at the bottom of your neck, just underneath the voice box.This small, butterfly-shaped gland makes a hormone called thyroxine that controls how your body uses energy, creates new proteins to help with growth and development during childhood, regulates heart rate and blood pressure, and manages body weight and temperature, among other things.

Thyroid Cancer occurs when these cells grow out of control and form tumours on or within the thyroid gland. It can also spread to any other part of the body. While anyone can be affected by Thyroid Cancer, women are threefold more susceptible to it than men. According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, over the past decade, the incidence rate of Thyroid Cancer in India has increased by 62% in women and 48% in men.

Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid Cancer generally goes unnoticed at the early stages. It is because, at the onset, it hardly shows any symptoms. But as it develops, you may notice symptoms that may include the following.

  • Swelling in your neckline

  • Nodules in the throat

  • Pain in the throat and neck, which may radiate up to the ears 

  • Change in voice, including hoarseness

  • Persistent cough

  • Breathing issues

  • Difficulty swallowing 

Although it cannot be prevented, early detection and proper treatment can help significantly in your prognosis. 

Causes of Thyroid Cancer

A mutation in your thyroid cells' DNA can result in Thyroid Cancer. Here, the cells grow at an abnormally fast rate, forming a lump called a tumour. Healthy cells die naturally, so these tumours keep growing until they press on healthy tissue or other parts of the body.

Though the origin of this disease is unclear, there may be a number of potential risk factors that may contribute to developing Thyroid Cancer. Here’s a list of some of those factors.

  • Family history: A history of Thyroid Cancer in your family puts you at a higher risk for developing it.

  • Gender: The American Cancer Society reports that this cancer occurs three times more often in women than in men. Women are more prone than men because the cells in their thyroid glands are more likely to develop nodules and become cancerous. The presence of oestrogen receptors on these cells may be a factor in their enhanced mitogenic, migratory, and invasive properties. 

  • Cowden Syndrome: This syndrome is commonly caused due to the mutation in the PTEN (Phosphatase and Tensin Homolog) gene. People with this syndrome may have a higher risk of developing Thyroid Cancer.

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP): As mentioned in Science Direct Journal, a mutation in the Adenomatous Polyposis Coli (APC) gene results in the rare hereditary disorder known as FAP. It can cause Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma.

  • Overexposure to radiation in childhood: According to a 2010 NCBI study, over-exposure to ionising radiation such as x-rays, CT scans, and radiation therapy in childhood may lead to a higher risk of Thyroid Cancer.

  • Obesity or being overweight: As mentioned in the European Journal of Endocrinology, people who are obese or overweight are more vulnerable. The body fat percentage or BMI is significantly related to an increased risk of Thyroid Cancer.  

Common Types of Thyroid Cancer

They are mainly categorised based on how similar they appear to regular thyroid cells under a microscope. And based on the look of the cancer cells, they can be classified as follows. 

1. Differentiated Thyroid Cancers

This is the most common type. As mentioned in the American Cancer Society, these types of cancer are hard to spot when they are examined under a microscope; they look a lot like healthy tissue. Differentiated Thyroid Cancers can be further classified as follows.

  • Papillary Thyroid Cancer (PTC): This is the most common type of cancer and has the best overall prognosis. The cancerous cells are likely to grow very slowly and usually grow on one side of the thyroid gland. Another important quality of PTC is its ability to invade nearby lymph nodes. This cancer can be successfully treated, and the fatality rate is very low. 

  • Follicular Thyroid Cancer (FTC):  After PTC, this is the second most common type of Thyroid Cancer. It is more prevalent in locations where the population's diet is deficient in iodine. Generally, these cancer cells do not spread to lymph nodes. Like Papillary Cancer, Follicular Cancer also has a successful treatment rate. But if not treated, it can affect other parts of your body. 

  • Hurthle Cell Thyroid Cancer (HTC): This cancer has some similarities with Follicular Thyroid Cancer. A 2020 research study has revealed that Hurthle Cell Thyroid Cancer (HTC) represents 3 to 5% of all thyroid malignancies. Usually, women after the age of 40 get frequently diagnosed with HTC. It is a more aggressive type of cancer and has a greater chance of metastasizing to different parts of the body. 

2. Medullary Thyroid Cancer (MTC) 

Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma (MTC) is a rare type of cancer and research says that it makes up 5 to 8% of all Thyroid Cancers. It develops from the C cells of the thyroid gland that produces calcitonin, a hormone that controls the calcium amount in the blood. This cancer may metastasize to the lungs, lymph nodes, or liver even before a thyroid lump is found. They are of two types. 

  • Sporadic MTC: Medullary thyroid cancer is 75 to 80% sporadic and is not inherited. Most older adults are diagnosed with MTC, and it usually affects only one lobe of the thyroid gland.

  • Familial MTC: This cancer is inherited from family members. It can affect both adults and children. Familial MTC usually affects both the lobes of the thyroid gland.

3. Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer

It is also called Undifferentiated Thyroid Cancer, which means the cancer cells do not look like normal thyroid cells. It is a rare and highly aggressive malignant tumour of the thyroid gland, and based on research data; it accounts for 2% to 3% of all thyroid tumours.

Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma is difficult to treat and is considered one of the most fatal diseases in the world.

4. Parathyroid Cancer

Parathyroid Cancer is a rare, malignant tumour that originates in the parathyroid gland. These four tiny glands are attached behind the thyroid gland, which controls your body's calcium level. Although found rarely, they can sometimes be found as a lump near the thyroid. It is much harder to treat than Thyroid Cancer.

5. Thyroid Lymphoma

The Thyroid Lymphoma begins in the white blood cells of the thyroid gland. It is common in people with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that damages the thyroid cells. The most common symptom is a swollen thyroid gland and the obstructive symptoms that accompany it. Despite being a rare form of cancer, it can be treated successfully depending on the size and age of the patient.

Thyroid Cancer treatment

Thyroid Cancer can be cured, especially when it is caught early. If cancer cannot be cured, your doctor may still be able to remove or destroy as much of the cancer as possible and keep it from growing, spreading, or returning for as long as possible.

While selecting a plan of treatment, the primary factors that are to be considered may include the following.

  • The type of cancer

  • The size and stage of cancer

  • The overall health of the patient

The recommended treatments include the following.

1. Surgery

If a person's thyroid tumour is one to four centimetres and larger, the doctors might recommend removing the entire thyroid gland. If they remove all the affected lymph nodes too, it could affect your body's ability to produce thyroid hormones. In such conditions, you might need to take oral supplements. 

2. Radioiodine Therapy

The thyroid gland is capable of absorbing almost all the iodine in your body. For this reason, radioactive iodine can be used for treating Thyroid Cancer. Radioiodine can demolish the thyroid gland and the thyroid cells, including cancerous cells.

This treatment can be used to destroy any cancerous tissues that are not removed by surgery. Radioiodine therapy is also used to treat cancer cells that have metastasized to lymph nodes and different body parts.

While radioiodine therapy is beneficial in treating Papillary or Follicular Thyroid Cancers, it cannot be used to treat Medullary or Anaplastic Thyroid Cancers.

3. External Radiation Therapy

This therapy uses high-energy rays to demolish cancerous cells and helps slow their growth. External beam radiation therapy is not a common treatment for Thyroid Cancer. It can be used when radioactive iodine treatment fails. It can also be used to treat the recurrence of cancer in the neck or if it has metastasized to distant organs causing pain or showing other symptoms.

4. Chemotherapy

In chemotherapy, an anti-cancer drug is injected into the vein or taken by mouth. The drug is absorbed into the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body to find and destroy cancerous cells. It is usually combined with radiation therapy to treat Anaplastic and Medullary Thyroid Cancers.

5. Targeted Drug Therapy

Newer drugs have been developed by scientists that can target the variations inside the cells that cause them to become cancerous. These drugs are also known as kinase inhibitors and are used to treat Thyroid Cancers. Kinases are proteins inside the cells which tell the cells to grow. Blocking such kinases can help in treating certain cancers.

How is Thyroid Cancer prevented?

In most cases, patients do not have any known causes. So it is difficult to prevent Thyroid Cancer for many people. Since exposure to radiation in childhood is known as a risk factor, doctors are no longer using radiation in children to treat diseases that are less serious. If it is needed, they should be done with the lowest dose of radiation, keeping children’s safety in mind.

Genetic tests can give a clear picture of the mutation of genes that are found in Medullary Thyroid Cancer. This can prevent most familial cases of MTC by removing the thyroid gland ahead of time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a list of common questions and their answers regarding Thyroid Cancer.

Can Thyroid Cancer be prevented?

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People with Thyroid Cancer tend to have no known risk factors, so it is not possible to prevent most cases of this disease.

How is Thyroid Cancer caused?

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Though the exact cause of Thyroid Cancer is unclear, there may be several factors that may contribute to developing this condition. Factors that may impact Thyroid Cancer risk are as follows.

  • Family history

  • Gender

  • Cowden Syndrome

  • Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP)

  • Overexposure to radiation in childhood

  • Obesity or being overweight

How can I reduce my risk for Thyroid Cancer?

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Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk of developing Thyroid Cancer. 

  • Maintain a healthy body weight

  • Avoid unnecessary contact with radiation

  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits

  • Identify the risk factors and see what you can do about it

Who is at high risk of Thyroid Cancer?

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Although Thyroid Cancer can develop at any age, women between the ages of 40 and 50 have the highest risk of developing it.

Sources

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. It is based on several secondary sources on the internet. As this content piece is not vetted by a medical professional, please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.

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