Thyroid cancer is one of the more treatable cancers, primarily because most cancers found in the thyroid grow slowly. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 60,000 people will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2013, three-quarters of whom are women. According to ACS estimates, there will be about 1,850 deaths from thyroid cancer this year.
The most common type of thyroid cancer is a papillary carcinoma, which develops from thyroid follicular cells. This type of cancer typically is not fatal because it does not spread quickly. The next most common type, a follicular carcinoma, is a cancer that usually does not spread to lymph nodes, but can sometimes spread to other parts of the body. Still, the outlook is quite good for most people with follicular carcinomas.
“The more rare types of thyroid cancer—such as medullary thyroid carcinoma and anaplastic carcinoma—are the ones that are more likely to have serious consequences,” says Olivia Aranha, MD, PhD, medical oncologist at Saint Francis Medical Center.
There is no screening test for thyroid cancer. Typically, doctors find it during a routine examination or when a patient notices a neck bump or lump. Risk factors include family history and having previously received radiation therapy. Fortunately, most often thyroid cancers can be found early and treated before they become dangerous.
“Usually, the best treatment for thyroid cancer is surgery,” says Aranha. “We typically remove all or part of the thyroid gland and any lymph nodes nearby that might also be cancerous. Often, the patient needs to take thyroid hormone pills following the surgery to account for the loss of the thyroid.”
Other options for treatment include:
Radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment – In this treatment, a doctor gives a patient a large dose of RAI, which destroys the thyroid and thyroid cells with little effect on the rest of the body.
Thyroid hormone treatment – This stops cancer cells from growing.
External beam radiation treatment – This uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells.
Targeted therapy – This type of therapy uses injected drugs to directly target cancer cells, rather than attacking all quickly growing cells.
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