What is thyroid cancer?
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. When cancer develops, it can spread to nearby lymph nodes and invade other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bones.
Thyroid cancer is the most common type of cancer affecting the endocrine system, and its prevalence has risen significantly over the past several decades. Fortunately, it's highly treatable if caught early.
In addition to other head and neck specialists, our thyroid cancer team includes endocrinologists, doctors who specialize in the endocrine system and hormone production, as well as endocrine surgeons, medical oncologists, nuclear medicine specialists, and others. As a major referral center in the Maryland and Washington, D.C. region, our doctors see more than 1,200 patients each year, making us highly experienced in caring for patients with all types of thyroid cancer.
Symptoms and risk factors
What are the signs of thyroid cancer?
Many people with this type of cancer don't notice any symptoms, especially in early stages, which is why it's often considered a silent disease. However, as the tumor grows, symptoms of thyroid cancer may include:
- A lump, or nodule, in the front of the neck near the Adam's apple (for men)
- Swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Pain in the throat or neck
- Change in voice
Other conditions can also cause these symptoms, so it’s important to see a doctor right away.
Who is at increased risk of developing this type of cancer?
Often, no one knows why cells grow out of control and form thyroid cancers. But several risk factors may increase your chances of developing this disease, such as:
- Family history of thyroid disease or cancer, including certain genetic mutations
- Personal history of underlying Hashimoto's thyroiditis
- 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)
Screening and prevention
Can you prevent thyroid cancer?
Many people with this disease don't have any known risk factors, so in most cases, this type of cancer cannot be prevented. However, early detection can improve outcomes so it's important to talk to your doctor if you feel a lump in your neck or notice another symptom of thyroid cancer.
In certain cases, it can also be helpful to talk about your risk of this disease with a board-certified genetic counselor. For example, if you have a family history of medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), genetic counseling can help you understand the pros and cons of genetic testing and strategies for managing your familial risk of thyroid cancer.
How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?
Thyroid nodules are growths, or collections of cells, that form on the thyroid. Most thyroid nodules are benign, meaning they are not cancerous. They usually do not grow or spread to other parts of the body and do not cause pain or other symptoms. In some cases, though, a thyroid nodule may be malignant, or cancerous. Cancerous thyroid growths can affect the functioning of the thyroid hormones 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 physical exam, checking for any unusual growths or swelling
- Potentially run lab and other tests, including:
- Blood tests, which look for abnormal levels of calcium and hormones, including the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) that controls how fast thyroid cells grow.
- Imaging tests, such as ultrasound, which is used to gather more information about the tumor. Other imaging tests may include computed tomography (CT) scans or X-ray.
- Biopsy, which involves removing a small amount of the tumor using a small, thin needle in the doctor's office. Unlike other centers, our pathologists are always present at the time of biopsy, ensuring we take an adequate tissue sample in one visit.
- Molecular testing, which allows us to study the biology of your cancer cells to determine if there are any specific DNA mutations that may predict the aggressiveness of the cancer and how it will best respond to treatment
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
Types of cancer
What are the most common types of thyroid cancer?
There are several types of thyroid cancer, and knowing the type is important to understanding the disease and determining the best way to treat it. The primary types are:
- Differentiated thyroid cancer, including:
- Papillary thyroid cancer, the most common type of this disease. Because it is typically slow-growing, it is often treatable.
- Follicular thyroid cancer, which is the second most common type of thyroid cancer.
- Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is the most aggressive type of this cancer and more difficult to treat. It can be linked to genetics (familial medullary thyroid cancer), which means that it can be passed down from a parent to a child. However, it can also be sporadic, which means it may not be hereditary.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer (undifferentiated thyroid cancer), the rarest type of this disease which is known to spread quickly.
Thyroid cancer treatment
At MedStar Health, we diagnose and treat more patients with thyroid cancer than anyone else in the region. Our highly specialized team is composed of experts in several disciplines, ensuring your care considers the input of specialists in endocrinology, surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, and more.
Thyroid cancer treatment is personalized to each patient based on the tumor’s size, stage, and type, while also considering the patient’s personal preferences. Most commonly, treatment options may range from “watchful waiting” to surgery, radioactive iodine treatment, or targeted therapy, depending on the diagnosis.
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Rebekah Anne Campbell, MD
Nancy Marie Carroll, MD
Erin A Felger, MD
Victoria Lai, MD, MS
Jennifer Erica Rosen, MD
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110 Irving Street, NW Washington, D.C., 20010
3800 Reservoir Rd. NW Washington, DC 20007
5601 Loch Raven Blvd. Russell Morgan Building First Floor Baltimore, MD 21239
12 MedStar Blvd. Ste. 180 Bel Air, MD 21015
9103 Franklin Square Dr. The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute Suite 220 Baltimore, MD 21237
7501 Surratts Rd. Ste. 101 Clinton, MD 20735