Understanding Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is the most common form of cancer of the endocrine system, an intricate communication system that uses specialized chemicals called hormones to send messages that control and coordinate various bodily functions. In addition to the thyroid, the endocrine system includes the hypothalamus, pancreas, sex organs, and the pituitary, adrenal, and pineal glands.

There are four types of thyroid cancer; however, 80 percent are papillary thyroid cancers, which begin in the cells that make thyroid hormones.

The thyroid is a tiny gland in the neck that makes hormones and controls:

  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Body temperature
  • Weight

The National Cancer Institute predicts more than 44,000 people will develop thyroid cancer in 2010. Fortunately, thyroid cancer is slow growing, and when caught early, it's usually curable.

Radiation fallout and high doses of radiation used in medical treatment (which are much higher than diagnostic x-rays) are primary risk factors for thyroid cancer, as is personal and family history.

Studies have found that childhood cancer survivors (particularly from Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) are 18 times more likely to develop thyroid cancer; 88 percent of patients who developed thyroid cancer previously received radiation therapy in or around the thyroid gland.

Other risk factors include:

  • Age (over 45)
  • Being female
  • Iodine, which is commonly found in shellfish and iodized salt.

The most common symptoms of thyroid cancer include:

  • A lump in the front of the neck
  • Hoarseness or voice changes
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Pain in the throat or neck

The American Thyroid Association recommends surgery for all cancerous thyroid tumors than are one centimeter or larger. Following surgery, most patients must take replacement hormone pills for the rest of their lives. Thyroid cancer patients may also undergo external radiation therapy, hormone therapy, radioactive iodine, chemotherapy, or some combination of these treatments.

Scientists have uncovered some of the genetic mutations that activate an important signaling pathway involved in the onset and development of cancers. This knowledge helps researchers develop new treatments.

Recently they've identified two targeted agents (drugs) that show promise in thyroid treatment. Understanding the genetic implications also helps physicians more accurately diagnose thyroid cancer and make better prognostic predictions.

While it's still not common, the incidence of thyroid cancer is increasing. If you experience any of the symptoms described above, see your physician promptly to rule out cancer.

National Cancer Institute. "What you need to know about Thyroid Cancer." Web. 26 November 2007.

Nikiforova, Marina N., and Nikiforov, Yuri E. "Molecular Genetics of Thyroid Cancer: Implications for Diagnosis, Treatment and Prognosis." Expert Review of Molecular Diagnostics 8(1) (2008): 83-95. Medscape Medical News. Web. 12 February 2008. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/568355

Mamula, Paul W. Ph.D. "Gene Marker Useful in Thyroid Cancer Patients." American Thyroid Association (ATA) Spring 2010 Meeting, Presented May 14, 2010. Medscape Medical News. Web. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/722046

"Risk of Thyroid Cancer Increased in Childhood Cancer Survivors." International Journal of Cancer 125 (2009): 2400-2405. Medscape Medical News. Web. 27 October 2009. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/711382

Murphy, Barbara A. "New Therapies for Thyroid Cancer." Journal Watch Oncology and Hematology 7(12) (2008). Medscape Medical News. Web. 2 April 2009. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/585789

"Targeted therapy decreases progression rate in thyroid cancer." Physorg.com. Web. 18 September 2010. http://www.physorg.com/news204013326.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Boalaert, Kristien. "Revised Guidelines for the Management of Thyroid Cancer." National Review of Endocrinology 6(4) (2010): 185-186. Medscape Medical News. Web. 27 July 2010. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/723677

"Endocrine system." University of Cincinnati, Clermont College. Web. 02 Nov 2004.