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The thyroid gland takes up iodine from the food we eat. It also makes several important hormones. Thyroid hormones help regulate the body's metabolism – the way it creates and uses energy.
Sometimes, it doesn’t function as it should. Thyroid conditions can be gender specific. Women get thyroid cancer more often than men do. Also, people between the ages of 45 and 69 are more likely to get thyroid cancer than people of other ages.
There is good news, though: most thyroid nodules are not cancerous. They are sometimes found as lumps on the neck. People can get thyroid nodules at any age, but older adults get them more often. A person may have a multinodular goiter, which means that the thyroid has several nodules. These nodules are sometimes cysts with fluid in them. There can also be extra lumps filled with thyroid hormone, which are called colloid nodules. These are not cancer. Without a biopsy and other tests, however, it is very hard to tell what a thyroid nodule is made of and whether it is cancer or not.
Some of the symptoms of thyroid cancer include: a lump over the thyroid or elsewhere in the neck, neck pain, neck swelling, hoarseness, trouble swallowing, trouble breathing, and a cough that lasts for a long time. These symptoms can be caused by many other things besides thyroid cancer. It is important to be checked by a doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
Thyroid cancer may be treated with surgery, radioactive iodine therapy (RAI), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.
With surgery, the tumor is removed from the thyroid while leaving as much of the thyroid as possible intact.
Radioactive iodine therapy kills cancer cells using radioactive iodine.
Radiation therapy uses X-rays to kill cancer cells. It is used to shrink a tumor before surgery and to get rid of any remaining cancer cells after surgery. Sometimes it is used to treat cancers that cannot be surgically removed.
Chemotherapy is used to help prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. In thyroid cancer, chemotherapy is less effective and usually used when the cancer has spread or has not responded to the radioiodine treatment.
Treatments are designed to destroy and remove as much of the cancer as possible to keep it from growing, spreading or returning. Sometimes treatment is aimed at relieving pain and other symptoms that can make breathing and swallowing difficult.
Fortunately, most thyroid cancers can be cured especially if the cancer has not spread. Advanced cancers can be harder to treat, especially if they do not respond to radioactive iodine therapy. Doctors and researchers are looking for better and safer ways to treat thyroid cancer.
Originally published 1/8/2016; Revised 2021
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