Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer

Thyroid cancer begins in the thyroid gland due to cell mutation. It grows gradually. Sometimes it can be aggressive. However, most thyroid cancers are curable with appropriate treatment.

The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland, is located at the base of the neck. It produces hormones to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and weight.

Types of thyroid cancer

  • Papillary: Most common type of thyroid cancer. It grows slowly and often spreads to lymph nodes in the neck but responds very well to treatment. Papillary is curable and rarely deadly.
  • Follicular: It quickly spreads to bones and nearby organs. 
  • Medullary (MTC): A genetic mutation may cause medullary thyroid cancer. Most patients may have a family history of the disease. 
  • Anaplastic: It is the least common but most aggressive. It is the most complex type to treat. It overgrows and spreads into surrounding tissue and other parts of the body. 

Signs and symptoms

Diagnostic tests

  • Thyroid function blood tests measure blood levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). It might give clues about thyroid cancer.
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA): Can be high in medullary thyroid cancer.
  • Ultrasound imaging creates body organ images using high-frequency sound waves. 
  • Biopsy: A long, thin needle removes some cells from the thyroid gland. Then, the sample is sent for analysis.
  • A radioiodine scan detects thyroid cancer and cancer spread using radioactive iodine (radioiodine) pill. The thyroid gland absorbs the iodine. A particular device measures the amount of radiation in the gland. 

How to determine the severity of thyroid cancer?

The thyroid cancer stage is indicated with a number between 1 and 4. A lower number means the cancer is likely to respond to treatment and only involves the thyroid. A higher number means cancer may have spread to other body parts. 

The staging system for thyroid cancer is the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) TNM system:

  • The size of the tumor (T)
  • The spread to nearby lymph nodes (N)
  • The spread to distant organs (M)

What are suitable treatments?

  • Surgery

Most patients will undergo surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid. The type of surgery depends on the type of thyroid cancer, the cancer size, the extent of cancer spread, and your preferences.

Types of surgery

  1. Total thyroidectomy removes all or most of the thyroid gland. 
  2. Hemithyroidectomy involves the removal of half of the thyroid. It is beneficial for slow-growing thyroid cancer.
  3. Lymph node dissection involves the removal of several lymph nodes in the neck for testing.
  • Targeted drug therapy focuses on specific chemicals present within cancer cells. It destroys cancer cells by blocking these chemicals. The drugs can be administered orally or intravenously.
  • Radiation therapy uses a machine that aims high-energy beams at precise body points to kill cancer cells. It is helpful if cancer doesn’t respond to other treatments or if it comes back. 

The common side effects are sunburn-like reaction on the skin, cough, and painful swallowing.

  • Chemotherapy uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. The chemotherapy drugs are available as a single agent or in combination. Some are in pill form; others are given through a vein. Chemotherapy may curb fast-growing thyroid cancers. 

Chemotherapy’s side effects include hair loss, abnormal weight loss, nausea, and vomiting.

  • Heat and cold therapy: To kill cancer cells, metastatic thyroid cancer cells can be treated with heat and cold therapy. Radiofrequency ablation destroys cancer cells using electrical energy. Cryoablation involves gas to freeze and kill cancer cells. In addition, it can help curb small areas of cancer cells.
  • Radioiodine therapy involves swallowing a pill or liquid containing a higher dose of radioactive iodine. Radioiodine shrinks and destroys cancer cells. It is a safe treatment. 

What are the alternative treatment options for thyroid cancer?

Alternative treatments can include vitamins, supplements, herbal remedies, or special diets. There is no evidence that these are effective for treating thyroid cancer. Some of these like multivitamins may be useful for you, but others can actually cause harm (damage your liver etc). Ask your cancer Doctor about whether you should be on any of these options.

What to expect after treatment for thyroid cancer?

The biggest problems after completing treatments are (1) possibility of recurrence (cancer coming back), and (2) remaining or late side effects of treatments.

To check for recurrence, visit your doctor every 3 to 6 months after the treatment ends. Do not skip follow-up visits. Your doctors will ask you about new symptoms. A physical examination and diagnostic tests may help to check recurrence.

For side effects, use Ankr’s digital health platform. It is free and trusted by tens of thousands of patients like you. Ankr will send you automated reminders about the possible side effects and teach you how to manage them. Get your account now on the myAnkr website or by downloading the Ankr iOS app.

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