Symptoms and Risk Factors
Thyroid cancer does not always cause symptoms. Often, the first sign of thyroid cancer is a thyroid nodule. Only about 5 to 17 percent of thyroid nodules harbor thyroid cancer, and most are benign (noncancerous) and cause no problems if left untreated.
Many thyroid cancers are detected in the early stages when patients or their doctors find nodules in their thyroids either during a physical exam or as an incidental finding on a radiological study. Some doctors suggest that patients do self-examinations of their neck carefully twice a year. Primary care doctors can include a cancer-related exam in an annual check-up.
Although thyroid cancer most often is discovered early and is not associated with any particular symptoms other than a lump (nodule) in the region of the thyroid, sometimes symptoms can include:
- Change in voice or hoarseness
- Difficulty swallowing solid foods
- Persistently swollen (non-tender) lymph nodes in the neck
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain in the front of the neck
Although the causes of thyroid cancer are not well understood, several factors can increase the risk of developing the disease:
- Radiation exposure: Radiation treatments to the head and neck, especially during childhood, can lead to thyroid cancer. Tests that use radiation to make a medical diagnosis – such as dental X-rays or mammograms – do not cause thyroid cancer.
- Gender and age: For unknown reasons, thyroid cancers occur about three times more often in women than in men, although thyroid nodules that occur in men and children are more indicative of thyroid cancer than those that occur in women.
- Family history of thyroid cancer: Some types of thyroid cancer are associated with genetics. Approximately 5 percent of bone medullary thyroid cancers and 25 percent of medullary thyroid cancers are hereditary. The management of thyroid nodules is different for patients who have first-degree relatives with thyroid cancer.
It’s our goal to treat the whole patient – not just the thyroid cancer. We understand that patients often need support beyond their cancer treatment. We offer speech therapy, physical therapy, rehabilitation, support groups, nutrition counseling, cancer psychology, and more to help patients deal with issues that can arise during or after their cancer treatment.
Our robust clinical trials program allows patients with thyroid cancer to access new treatments years before they are offered to the public. Our thyroid cancer specialists can help patients determine if they are eligible to participate in a clinical trial related to their condition.