What is thyroid cancer?
Your thyroid gland is in the front part of your neck, just below the thyroid cartilage (Adam’s apple) or larynx. It’s part of your endocrine system and is very important because it helps regulate your metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and much more.
This part of your body can be prone to many types of growths and tumors, and in most cases, these will be benign and non-cancerous, but others can be malignant. As soon as you start to notice any changes in your thyroid or symptoms listed below go to your doctor.
Thyroid cancer is one of the most curable cancers - around 9 in every 10 people are alive 5 years after a diagnosis of thyroid cancer and many will have a normal lifespan. The earlier you catch it the more likely you are to have a complete recovery.
The facts about thyroid cancer
- According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 52,070 new cases of thyroid cancer in the US every year and 2170 deaths
- It’s the 20th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 1% of all new cancer cases.
- Although thyroid cancer is commonly diagnosed at a younger age than most other adult cancers, the incidence rates for thyroid cancer in the UK are highest in people aged 65 to 69
- Women are 3 times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men
- The chance of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer has tripled in the past three decades- although much of this rise appears to be the result of better detection.
- The death rate has increased slightly in recent years but remains very low compared with most other cancers
- On average 98% of people survive thyroid cancer for 5 or more years, but this does depend on the type of thyroid cancer(Cancer.net)
- 9% of thyroid cancers are preventable (Cancer Research UK)
What are the symptoms to watch out for?
If you spot any of the following signs or symptoms talk to your doctor right away. It is highly likely they will be caused by a non-cancerous condition - but best to be safe it could be thyroid cancer!
- A lump in the neck, sometimes growing quickly
- Swelling in the neck
- Pain in the front of the neck, sometimes going up to the ears
- Hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away
- Trouble swallowing
- Trouble breathing
- A constant cough that is not due to a cold
How is it diagnosed?
There are no screening programs as such – although a simple neck check done by a medical professional during a routine appointment can detect a thyroid nodule. So, if you are experiencing any of the above – go and get checked. If they think you might have a thyroid problem, they will organize some tests or refer you to a hospital specialist.
This is a thyroid function test to check the levels of thyroid hormones in your blood. Abnormal levels could mean that you have an overactive thyroid or an underactive thyroid, rather than cancer.
If your thyroid levels are normal but the symptoms persist, your doctor will send you for further tests, such as an ultrasound scan to further investigate
This scan uses sound waves to create an image of the inside of your body and can check for a lump in your thyroid that could be caused by cancer. If a potentially cancerous lump is found, a biopsy will be done to confirm the diagnosis.
The only way to confirm if a lump is cancerous is to take a biopsy. This is where a small sample of cells are removed and studied under a microscope, usually by inserting a thin needle into the lump.
If a biopsy finds that you have thyroid cancer, further tests may be needed to check whether the cancer had spread to another part of your body.The main tests used for this are:
- CT scan – a type of scan that uses a series of X-rays and a computer to create detailed images of the inside of the body
- MRI scan – a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body
What is the treatment?
If you’re diagnosed with thyroid cancer your precise treatment will depend on the stage your cancer has reached, the type of thyroid cells affected and whether or not it has spread to other parts of your body. Your medical team will advise you of the best course of action, but they'll likely recommend one or more of the following procedures:
This is surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid, and if necessary nearby glands. You’ll need to spend a few days in hospital after the operation, before resting at home for a few weeks. You'll be left with a small scar on your neck, but this will fade over time.
Radioactive iodine treatment
A course of radioactive iodine treatment is often recommended after surgery and will help destroy any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. It involves swallowing radioactive iodine in either liquid or capsule form. The iodine travels through your blood and kills cancerous cells. You'll need to stay in hospital for a few days with no visitors because the iodine will make your body slightly radioactive.
If radioactive iodine treatment is not suitable, external radiotherapy may be used after surgery to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer coming back. It can also be used to control symptoms of advanced or anaplastic thyroid carcinomas if they cannot be fully removed by surgery. This is the most advanced and aggressive thyroid cancer, although is very rare and found in less than 2% of patients with thyroid cancer.
Newer medicines known as targeted therapies are being used more widely to treat several types of thyroid cancer. These specifically target cancer cells, rather than harming healthy cells at the same time, as chemotherapy does. These may be recommended if thyroid cancer has spread to other parts of the body and has not responded to radioactive iodine treatment
Chemotherapy is rarely used to treat thyroid cancer, but it's sometimes used to treat anaplastic thyroid carcinomas that have spread to other parts of the body.
If you or someone you know is fighting thyroid cancer you can find support in the Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group. Here you’ll find thousands of people with many different types of cancer and undergoing a range of treatments. If you have any fears, questions or simply want to be part of the community, please go ahead and join the group.
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