January is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. You may not spend much time thinking about your thyroid, or even know what it is. The thyroid is a gland in the neck in charge of your metabolism and creating new proteins. There are several illnesses and diseases related to the thyroid, including hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, and goiter. However, when thinking about the thyroid, most people probably first think of thyroid cancer.
Thyroid cancer is the 8th most common form cancer in the US. It can be particularly dangerous to seniors, who tend to develop more aggressive forms. Like most forms of cancer, early detection leads to a better prognosis, which is why it’s critical to understand the symptoms and risks of thyroid cancer.
The thyroid is a gland in the front of your neck that’s responsible for regulating your metabolism. Unfortunately, thyroid cancer is somewhat of a mystery. The causes of most cases are unknown, and it’s not known how to prevent it. What we do know is women are 3 times as likely as men to develop thyroid cancer. Exposure to large amounts of radiation has been proven to increase your risk, especially when directed at the head or neck during a medical procedure. Usually the cancer shows up about 2 decades after exposure.
Most people don’t have a great enough risk of thyroid cancer to warrant regular screening, but there are some exceptions. Recent research suggests people who received radiation therapy in their neck as a child should seek an annual screening. Additionally, anyone carrying the MEN2 gene should be screened regularly. Nearly everyone with this gene will develop a very dangerous form of thyroid cancer, and a genetic test can tell you if you carry it.
Diagnosing Thyroid Cancer
Most people with thyroid cancer have no symptoms. Their cancer either shows up during a routine test performed by their doctor, or when they find a painless lump on the front of their neck. People who do have symptoms may experience swelling and pain in the neck, difficulty swallowing, breathing, hoarseness, and a constant cough.
If a lump appears on your neck, there’s no reason to panic. Doctors begin by taking a biopsy of the tissue to make sure it’s cancerous, and determine whether it’s malignant or benign. A lump may also be a goiter from an unrelated thyroid condition. A definitive thyroid cancer diagnosis is then established with painless and unobtrusive tests, including ultrasounds, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, or a CEA blood test.
Prognosis for Thyroid Cancer
There are 7 types of thyroid cancer, but nearly all cases are the same 2 types. About 80% are papillary thyroid cancer, and another 10% are follicular thyroid cancer. The remaining five types are equal parts rare and dangerous. For example, anaplastic thyroid cancer grows and spreads quickly, leaving patients with a 5-year survival rate around 7%.
But for the two most common types, patients can anticipate a 5-year survival rate of thyroid cancer as high as 98%. In other words, most people with thyroid cancer will have a normal life expectancy. Life after treatment provides few reasons for pessimism, thanks to a relatively low 3-5% rate of cancer recurrence over the next 15 years. Some surgical patients have expressed the concern that because the thyroid is involved in metabolism, their surgery may lead to weight gain, but research has shown no connection.
Treatment for Thyroid Cancer
There are 4 types of treatment options: chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and surgery. The type of treatment used depends on the stage of the disease and the health of the patient, but surgery is the most common type. As few as 11% of patients are not cured after their thyroid cancer surgery. Depending on their health, those patients proceed to one of the other treatment options.
A cancer diagnosis is never good news, but thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable forms of the disease. If you or a loved one become afflicted, there’s reason for hope and optimism. Even the more aggressive forms known to develop in seniors can be turned around with treatment.