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For those who fear or face cancer of the thyroid—the tiny gland in the front of the throat that regulates the body’s hormones—medical specialists have an important message: Take heart.
“Only about 10 percent of the lumps or nodules detected in the thyroid area turn out to be cancer,” says Jennifer Rosen, MD, FACS, chief of Endocrine Surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “And even when advanced at the time of discovery, thyroid cancer is very treatable and often curable.”
While the numbers affected by the disease has tripled over the past three decades, that’s largely due to refinements in diagnostic technology. In fact, symptoms of thyroid cancer are few and far between, with such vague complaints as trouble swallowing, a change in voice or a lump or swelling in the neck. Risk factors are rare as well, consisting of a family history of the disease or exposure to high levels of radiation. Women are also much more likely to be affected than men.
As a result, most people have no idea they even have a problem until their doctor notices a nodule during a routine check-up, or an x-ray uncovers something suspicious.
“To help with diagnosis, we use advanced, state-of-the-art ultrasound to detect tiny thyroid nodules, many of which escaped notice by yesterday’s less sensitive technology,” Dr. Rosen says. “Depending on the size of the tumor, we may then proceed with an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy, a sophisticated procedure that requires a depth of expertise and experience for the best results.”
And if cancer is the answer, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ treatment, with different options depending upon the size of the tumor and whether lymph nodes are involved. Some form of surgery typically produces the best therapeutic result. But how it is performed and by whom can make a huge difference in cosmetic outcome.
“We do everything possible to prevent scarring,” explains Dr. Rosen. “That includes using minimally invasive surgical techniques, making incisions low in the neck using ‘melt away’ sutures and a special skin glue. Of course, it also helps that, as thyroid specialists, we’re very comfortable working with the delicate skin on that part of the body.”
After thyroid cancer surgery, most patients return almost immediately to their regular lives.
“While all patients will need lifelong medication and monitoring,” concludes Dr. Rosen, “they can still expect to live a good, long life after cancer.”