By Robin Westen
We’re not nearly as familiar with thyroid cancer as we are with breast or prostate cancer, but it’s the fastest-increasing cancer in both men and women in the U.S. The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat, secretes hormones and affects metabolism and body temperature. Here are the five essential facts you should know about this illness:
Signs: Many patients, especially in the early stages of thyroid cancer, don’t experience symptoms. However, as the cancer develops, signs can include a lump or nodule in the front of the neck, hoarseness or difficulty speaking, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and pain in the throat or neck.
Types: There are several including papillary, follicular, and medullary. If detected early, most papillary and follicular thyroid cancer can be treated successfully. Medullary cancer is easier to treat and control if found before it spreads to other parts of the body.
Causes: The factors associated with thyroid cancer include a family history of thyroid cancer, gender (women have a much higher incidence of thyroid cancer), age (the majority of cases occur in people over 40, although thyroid cancer affects all age groups) and prior exposure of the thyroid gland to radiation.
Treatments: The options include surgery, radioactive iodine treatment, external beam radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. In most cases, patients undergo surgery to remove most of the thyroid gland, and are treated with thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
Follow through: While the prognosis for most thyroid cancer patients is very good, the rate of recurrence can be up to 30%, and recurrences can occur even decades after the initial diagnosis. That’s why it’s important for patients to get regular follow-up examinations to find out whether the cancer has returned. Monitoring should continue throughout the patient’s lifetime.
Robin Westen is ThirdAge's Medical Director. Check for her daily updates. Her latest book, co-authored with Dr. Alyssa Dweck, is "V is for Vagina."