Thyroid tumors are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous) growths.
The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck at the base of the throat. Thyroid tumors are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous) growths. Examples of benign tumors are adenomas, which may secrete thyroid hormone. Malignant tumors are more rare and are more common in women than in men. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), over 56,000 cases of thyroid cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2012.
Thyroid adenomas are small growths (nodules) that start in the cell layer that lines the inner surface of the thyroid gland. The adenoma itself may secrete thyroid hormone. If the adenoma secretes enough thyroid hormone, it may cause hyperthyroidism. Thyroid adenomas may be treated if they cause hyperthyroidism. Treatment may include surgery to remove part of the thyroid (the overactive nodule).
Cancer of the thyroid occurs more often in people who have undergone radiation to the head, neck, or chest. However, it may occur in people without any known risk factors. Most thyroid cancer can be cured with appropriate treatment. Thyroid cancer usually appears as nodules within the thyroid gland. Some signs that a nodule may be cancerous include:
Presence of a single nodule rather than multiple nodules
Thyroid scan reveals the nodule is not functioning
Nodule is solid instead of filled with fluid (cyst)
Nodule is hard
Nodule grows fast
The first sign of a cancerous nodule in the thyroid gland is usually a painless lump in the neck.
Other symptoms may include:
Hoarseness or loss of voice as the cancer presses on the nerves to the voice box
Difficulty swallowing as the cancer presses on the throat
Throat or neck pain that does not go away
A cough that does not go away
However, the symptoms of thyroid cancer may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for thyroid cancer may include:
Biopsy. Taking a sample of the nodule with a needle for examination under a microscope.
There are four main forms of thyroid cancer:
Papillary thyroid cancer
Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common form of thyroid cancer, accounting for about 80 percent of all cases. This form of thyroid cancer affects more women than men.
Treatment for papillary cancer may include:
Follicular thyroid cancer
Follicular thyroid cancer accounts for about 10 percent of thyroid cancer cases. This type of thyroid cancer is more aggressive and tends to spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. Still, the prognosis (outlook) is very good in most cases.
Treatment for follicular cancer may include:
Anaplastic thyroid cancer
Anaplastic thyroid cancer tends to occur most often among women and accounts for about 2 percent of thyroid cancer cases. This quick-growing cancer usually results in a large growth in the neck. It has often spread to other parts of the body by the time it is found and is very hard to treat effectively.
Treatment for anaplastic thyroid cancer may include:
Medullary thyroid cancer
Medullary thyroid cancer accounts for about 4 percent of thyroid cancers. It tends to spread through the lymphatic system (which consists of a system of vessels that connect lymph nodes throughout the body) and the bloodstream to other parts of the body. This type of cancer produces excessive amounts of calcitonin, a hormone also produced by the thyroid gland itself.
Treatment for medullary thyroid cancer may include:
Additional surgery or other treatments may be necessary if the cancer has spread.
Because medullary cancer tends to run in families, screening tests for genetic abnormalities in the blood cells may be conducted.
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Sareh Parangi, MD, endocrine surgeon in the Thyroid Nodule Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, discusses thyroid nodule biopsy results and treatment recommendations.