Thyroid cancer develops when a malignant mass forms in the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck.
Approximately 48,000 new cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed annually, with nearly 90 percent of patients diagnosed with papillary or follicular cancer.
Diagnosing Thyroid Cancer
Some of the tests commonly ordered to detect and diagnose thyroid cancer include:
- Laryngoscopy: In this procedure, the doctor examines the vocal cords with a laryngoscope, a small, thin lighted tube with a lens on the end, to see if the vocal cords are moving normally.
- Blood hormone studies: A small sample of the blood is drawn to measure the amount of certain chemicals released by the body’s organs and tissues. An increased level of certain chemicals, particularly thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) or the hormone calcitonin, can indicate an abnormality.
- Blood chemistry studies: A small sample of the blood is drawn to measure the amount of certain chemicals released by the body’s organs and tissues.
- Radioactive iodine scan (RAI): This process is used to find where the cancer cells may be quickly multiplying in the body. Radioactive iodine is used because the thyroid gland absorbs iodine rapidly—abnormal cells absorb less iodine than normal cells.
- Ultrasound: Inthis procedure, high-frequency sound waves are bounced off the body’s internal organs and createechoes, called a sonogram, to show the location and size of the malignancy.
- CT, MRI, or PET scans: Thesescans take pictures of the body using various mechanisms. A CT or CAT scan takes pictures of the internal organs from various angles—sometimes a patient is given a dye that allows the organs to appear on the x-ray more clearly; an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses magnets and radio waves to create pictures; a PET scan relies on a small amount of radioactive glucose (which is injected into a vein) to determine where the malignancy is in the body.
- Fine-needle aspiration: A small, thin needle is inserted into the thyroid and a delicate sample of tissue is collected from various parts of the gland for further examination. Because of the delicate nature of this procedure, the patient should see a pathologist experienced in doing this type of surgery.
- Biopsy: A small sample of the tumor’s tissue is cut away and examined under a microscope. This is the most accurate way to diagnose any type of cancer.
Treatment of Thyroid Cancer
- Surgery: This is the most common treatment for thyroid cancer. Depending on what form the patient has, the doctor may remove the lobe in which the cancer was found, all or a portion of the thyroid, or the cancerous lymph nodes in the neck.
- Radiation (including radioactive iodine therapy): External (applied by machine directly to the malignancy) or internal radiation (applied by needle, wire, or catheter directly to the malignancy) may be given to the patient. Radiation is often prescribed after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells that were not successfully terminated during the procedure.
- Chemotherapy: This procedure relies on powerful medication to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be injected into the patient’s bloodstream or directly into their cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or body cavity. This is called regional chemotherapy.
- Thyroid hormone therapy: In this procedure, hormones are blocked or removed from the body to prevent them from creating cancer cells.
The type of treatment a patient receives depends on their overall physical health as well as the location, stage of thyroid cancer, and size of the malignancy.