Thyroid cancer is usually very treatable and is often cured with surgery and, if indicated, radioactive iodine as administered by an endocrinologist. Even when thyroid cancer is more advanced, effective treatment is available for the most common forms of thyroid cancer. Even though the diagnosis of cancer is terrifying, the prognosis for most patients with papillary and follicular thyroid cancer is usually excellent.
Types of thyroid cancer:
Papillary thyroid cancer. Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type, making up about 70% to 80% of all thyroid cancers. Papillary thyroid cancer can occur at any age. It tends to grow slowly and often spreads to lymph nodes in the neck. However, unlike many other cancers, papillary cancer has a generally excellent outlook, even if there is spread to the lymph nodes.
Follicular thyroid cancer. Follicular thyroid cancer makes up about 10% to 15% of all thyroid cancers in the United States. Follicular cancer can spread to lymph nodes in the neck, but this is much less common than with papillary cancer. Follicular cancer is also more likely than papillary cancer to spread to distant organs, particularly the lungs and bones.
Medullary thyroid cancer. Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), accounts for approximately 2% of all thyroid cancers. Approximately 25% of all MTC runs in families and is associated with other endocrine tumors. In family members of an affected person, a test for a genetic mutation in the RET proto-oncogene can lead to an early diagnosis of medullary thyroid cancer and, as a result, to curative surgery.
Anaplastic thyroid cancer. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most advanced and aggressive thyroid cancer and the least likely to respond to treatment. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is very rare and is found in less than 2% of patients with thyroid cancer.
Symptoms of thyroid cancer:
Thyroid cancer often presents as a lump or nodule in the thyroid and usually does not cause any symptoms. Blood tests generally do not help to find thyroid cancer and thyroid blood tests such as TSH are usually normal, even when a cancer is present. Neck examination by your doctor is a common way in which thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer are found. Often, thyroid nodules are discovered incidentally on imaging tests like CT scans and neck ultrasound done for completely unrelated reasons. Occasionally, patients themselves find thyroid nodules by noticing a lump in their neck while looking in a mirror, buttoning their collar, or fastening a necklace. Rarely, thyroid cancers and nodules may cause symptoms. In these cases, patients may complain of pain in the neck, jaw, or ear. If a nodule is large enough to compress the windpipe or esophagus, it may cause difficulty with breathing, swallowing, or cause a “tickle in the throat”. Even less commonly, hoarseness can be caused if a thyroid cancer invades the nerve that controls the vocal cords.
The important points to remember are that cancers arising in thyroid nodules generally do not cause symptoms, thyroid function tests are typically normal even when cancer is present, and the best way to find a thyroid nodule is to make sure that your doctor examines your neck as part of your periodic check-up.
Causes of thyroid cancer:
Thyroid cancer is more common in people who have a history of exposure to high doses of radiation, have a family history of thyroid cancer, and are older than 40 years of age. However, for most patients, we do not know the specific reason or reasons why thyroid cancer develops.
High dose radiation exposure, especially during childhood, increases the risk of developing thyroid cancer. Prior to the 1960s, X-ray treatments were often used for conditions such as acne, inflamed tonsils and adenoids, enlarged lymph nodes, or to treat enlargement of a gland in the chest called the thymus. All these treatments were later found to be associated with an increased risk of developing thyroid cancer later in life. Even X-ray therapy used to treat cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease (cancer of the lymph nodes) or breast cancer has been associated with an increased risk for developing thyroid cancer if the treatment included exposure to the head, neck or chest. Routine X-ray exposure such as dental X-rays, chest X-rays and mammograms have not been shown to cause thyroid cancer.
Exposure to radioactivity released during nuclear disasters (1986 accident at the Chernobyl power plant in Russia or the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan) has also been associated with an increased risk of developing thyroid cancer, particularly in exposed children, and thyroid cancers can be seen in exposed individuals as many as 40 years after exposure.
Diagnosis of thyroid cancer:
A diagnosis of thyroid cancer can be suggested by the results of a fine needle aspiration biopsy of a thyroid nodule and can be definitively determined after a nodule is surgically excised. Although thyroid nodules are very common, less than 1 in 10 will be a thyroid cancer.
Treatment of thyroid cancer:
Surgery. The primary therapy for all types of thyroid cancer is surgery (see Thyroid Surgery). The extent of surgery for differentiated thyroid cancers (removing only the lobe involved with the cancer- called a lobectomy or the entire thyroid – called a total thyroidectomy) will depend on the size of the tumor and on whether or not the tumor is confined to the thyroid. Sometimes findings either before surgery or at the time of surgery – such as spread of the tumor into surrounding areas or the presence of obviously involved lymph nodes – will indicate that a total thyroidectomy is a better option. Some patients will have thyroid cancer present in the lymph nodes of the neck (lymph node metastases). These lymph nodes can be removed at the time of the initial thyroid surgery or sometimes, as a later procedure if lymph node metastases become evident later on. For very small cancers (<1 cm) that are confined to the thyroid, involving only one lobe and without evidence of lymph node involvement a simple lobectomy (removal of only the involved lobe) is considered sufficient.
After surgery, most patients need to be on thyroid hormone for the rest of their life. Often, thyroid cancer is cured by surgery alone, especially if the cancer is small. If the cancer is larger, if it has spread to lymph nodes or if your doctor feels that you are at high risk for recurrent cancer, radioactive iodine may be used after the thyroid gland is removed.
Radioactive iodine therapy. (Also referred to as I-131 therapy). Thyroid cells and most thyroid cancers absorb and concentrate iodine. That is why radioactive iodine can be used to eliminate all remaining normal thyroid tissue and potentially destroy residual cancerous thyroid tissue after thyroidectomy.
The procedure to eliminate residual thyroid tissue is called radioactive iodine ablation. This produces high concentrations of radioactive iodine in thyroid tissues, eventually causing the cells to die. Since most other tissues in the body do not efficiently absorb or concentrate iodine, radioactive iodine used during the ablation procedure usually has little or no effect on tissues outside of the thyroid. However, in some patients who receive larger doses of radioactive iodine for treatment of thyroid cancer metastases, radioactive iodine can affect the glands that produce saliva and result in dry mouth complications. If higher doses of radioactive iodine are necessary, there may also be a small risk of developing other cancers later in life. This risk is very small, and increases as the dose of radioactive iodine increases. The potential risks of treatment can be minimized by using the smallest dose possible. Balancing potential risks against the benefits of radioactive iodine therapy is an important discussion that you should have with your doctor if radioactive iodine therapy is recommended.
Follow up after thyroid cancer:
Periodic follow-up examinations are essential for all patients with thyroid cancer because the thyroid cancer can return—sometimes several years after successful initial treatment. These follow-up visits include a careful history and physical examination, with particular attention to the neck area. Neck ultrasound is an important tool to view the neck and look for nodules, lumps or cancerous lymph nodes that might indicate the cancer has returned. Blood tests are also important for thyroid cancer patients.
Most patients who have had a thyroidectomy for cancer require thyroid hormone replacement with levothyroxine once the thyroid is removed. The dose of levothyroxine prescribed by your doctor will in part be determined by the initial extent of your thyroid cancer. More advanced cancers usually require higher doses of levothyroxine to suppress TSH (lower the TSH below the low end of the normal range). In cases of minimal or very low risk cancers, it’s typically safe to keep TSH in the normal range. The TSH level is a good indicator of whether the levothyroxine dose is correctly adjusted and should be followed periodically by your doctor.
Another important blood test is measurement of thyroglobulin (Tg). Thyroglobulin is a protein produced by normal thyroid tissue and thyroid cancer cells, and is usually checked at least once a year. Following thyroidectomy and radioactive iodine ablation, thyroglobulin levels usually become very low or undetectable when all tumor cells are gone. Therefore, a rising thyroglobulin level should raise concern for possible cancer recurrence. Some patients will have thyroglobulin antibodies (TgAb) which can make it difficult to rely on the Tg result, as this may be inaccurate.
In addition to routine blood tests, your doctor may want to repeat a whole-body iodine scan to determine if any thyroid cells remain. Increasingly, these scans are only done for high risk patients and have been largely replaced by routine neck ultrasound and thyroglobulin measurements that are more accurate to detect cancer recurrence, especially when done together.
Prognosis of thyroid cancer:
Overall, the prognosis of differentiated thyroid cancer is excellent, especially for patients younger than 45 years of age and those with small cancers. Patients with papillary thyroid cancer who have a primary tumor that is limited to the thyroid gland have an excellent outlook. Ten year survival for such patients is 100% and death from thyroid cancer anytime thereafter is extremely rare. For patients older than 45 years of age, or those with larger or more aggressive tumors, the prognosis remains very good, but the risk of cancer recurrence is higher. The prognosis may not be quite as good in patients whose cancer is more advanced and cannot be completely removed with surgery or destroyed with radioactive iodine treatment. Nonetheless, these patients often are able to live a long time and feel well, despite the fact that they continue to live with cancer. It is important to talk to your doctor about your individual profile of cancer and expected prognosis. It will be necessary to have lifelong monitoring, even after successful treatment.
American Thyroid Association