Thyroid Cancer & Nodules | MedStar Health
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Thyroid cancer is a malignant (cancerous) growth found in the thyroid gland. The gland sits in the throat below the voice box (larynx) and makes thyroid hormone and the hormone calcitonin. Thyroid cancer is highly treatable if caught early, because of its location. In addition to other head and neck specialists, our thyroid cancer team includes endocrinologists, doctors who specialize in the endocrine system and hormone production.

Risk factors

Often, no one knows why cells grow out of control and form thyroid cancers. But there are several risk factors:

  • Family history of thyroid disease or cancer, including certain genetic conditions; in the case of a rare cancer called medullary, a defect in the gene RET can get passed on from parents
  • Radiation therapy to the head or neck as a child
  • Gender (women are more likely to develop thyroid cancer)
  • Age (higher risk between 25 and 65)
  • History of enlarged thyroid (goiter)
  • Ethnicity (Asians have a greater risk)

Are You at Risk for Thyroid Disease?

  • Approximately 12 million Americans are affected by thyroid disease. Thyroid diseases occur at least five times more frequently in women than in men
  • As many as ten percent of women over age 65 have an underactive thyroid
  • Thyroid dysfunction complicates between 5 and 9 percent of all pregnancies
  • Thyroid nodules are common, but only between 5 and 10 percent of these are cancerous


Symptoms of thyroid cancer may include:

  • A lump, or nodule, in the front of the neck near the Adam's apple (for men)
  • Hoarseness
  • Swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Pain in the throat or neck

Other conditions can also cause these symptoms, so it’s important to see a doctor right away.

Thyroid cancer and nodules - diagnosis

Thyroid nodules are growths, or collections of cells, that form on the thyroid. In most cases, thyroid nodules are benign, meaning they are not cancerous. They usually do not grow or spread and do not cause pain or other symptoms. In some cases, though, thyroid nodules are malignant, or cancerous. Cancerous thyroid growths can affect the functioning of the thyroid and cause other symptoms, including difficulty swallowing and swelling in the neck.

To make a diagnosis, our doctors:

  • Take a full medical history
  • Perform a complete head and neck exam
  • Possibly remove a small amount of the tumor during a biopsy, for further study
  • Potentially run lab and imaging tests, including:
    • Laryngoscopy: examination of the larynx (voice box) with a laryngoscope
    • Blood tests: to look for abnormal levels of calcium and hormones, including the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) that controls how fast thyroid cells grow 
    • Ultrasound
    • CT (CAT) scan
    • X-ray

These exams and tests help the doctor determine:

  • The type of cancer and its stage
  • How aggressive it is
  • Whether it has spread
  • How best to treat it


MedStar Health has thyroid cancer specialists who can offer you individualized treatment based on your needs. Thyroid cancer occurs in tissues of the endocrine system, which consists of your body’s hormone-secreting glands, including the thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, pancreas, and pituitary glands. These glands are located in different areas of the body and produce hormones that regulate many bodily functions.

Endocrine cancers are the fastest growing cancers in women and affect them three times more often than men. At the time of diagnosis, most women are usually between the ages 40 and 50. Men who develop endocrine cancer are usually diagnosed in later years, between the ages 60 and 70.  The most common type of endocrine cancer is thyroid cancer. Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat. It has two main sections, a left lobe and a right lobe. The middle of the thyroid gland, where the lobes meet, is called the isthmus. Your thyroid makes the hormone thyroxine, which helps control metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and weight.

Most thyroid cancers are very treatable and usually can be cured with surgery and appropriate therapy.

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