What is Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid cancer is the malignant tumor of the thyroid gland. It is not a common disease, and it is more prevalent in women. There are different types of thyroid cancer, and they include papillary, follicular, anaplastic, lymphoma, and medullary cell.
How Serious is Thyroid Cancer?
Even though it is not common, it causes the death of four hundred people in the United Kingdom every year, and in the USA, it often occurs in an average of thirty thousand people per year. Most of the time they present as thyroid nodules. It is the most common type of endocrine cancer. One good news about thyroid cancer is that it is easier to detect early. It commonly affects people who have a history of breast cancer, are over forty years of age, have a family history of thyroid cancer, and people with a history of radiation exposure. Low iodine diet is another risk factor for thyroid cancer. Recently, the incidence of the thyroid gland cancer has increased. It increased with the rate of 5.4% in men, and 6.5% in women in the United States. Hawaii in the United States is one of the common places where thyroid cancer often occurs, whereas Poland has one of the lowest record for thyroid cancer. Female to male ratio in the United States is 3:1. Thyroid cancer is usually rare in children less than fifteen years of age.
Between 2003 and 2015, United Kingdom records age-standardized incidence of eighty percent in both males and females. In males the age-standardized incidence increase by eighty percent, and in females it increased by eighty-two percent.
Can You Die from Thyroid Cancer?
The fact is that you can die from any type of cancer and thyroid cancer is not an exception. Thyroid cancer can kill for various reasons such as blockage of the neck. The thyroid gland can cause compression in the neck. This can affect the airway, such that the person will not be able to breathe very well. Another thing that can cause death in thyroid cancer is its metastasis (the spread of cancer from the original site that is affected to other parts of the body).
Metastasis is not only restricted to thyroid cancer, it also occurs in other types of cancer. Thyroid cancers can metastasis to other organs in the body including the lung, the bones, brain, or liver. The effect of this metastasis at these secondary sites can also lead to death. This is because these organs play vital roles in the body. The lungs are involved with breathing function, the bones provide the skeletal framework for the body, the brain coordinates the activities of the body, and the liver plays role in body’s metabolic and immune function. Compromise of the functions of the above organs can lead to death if not properly managed. Death almost commonly occurs right away when respiratory insufficiency occurs as a result of the metastatic cells replacing the lung tissue, airway obstruction, heavy hemorrhage in the lung(s).
What are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer?
Signs and symptoms often present early in thyroid cancer, this is the reason it can be detected early and hence treated early. It makes thyroid cancer to have a good prognosis (however prognosis is poor in anaplastic and medullary cell carcinoma forms of thyroid cancer). Prognosis is the likelihood of a disease condition to get better. Signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer include difficulty with swallowing, feeling of the presence of a mass in the throat, coughing, an abnormal change in the voice, feeling of pain in the throat and the neck, cervical lymphadenopathy(swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck) and weight loss. Weight loss is not specific to the thyroid gland. It occurs in all types of cancer. Weight loss occurs because cancerous cells feed on the body’s nutrients to keep surviving. The cause of these signs and symptoms are briefly explained as follows:
- Difficulty with swallowing: This is because the thyroid gland compresses on the esophagus (the tube-like hollow structure that connects the back of the mouth with the stomach). This makes swallowing difficult. It may initially start with difficulty in swallowing solid foods, then progresses to difficulty in swallowing liquids. Feeling of the presence of a heavy substance in the throat: This is due to the enlarged thyroid gland itself. The heavy substance (lump) is the cancerous thyroid gland.
- Cough: This is usually as a result of irritation of the nerve that supplies the vocal cord or irritation of the trachea by the cancerous nodules. This cough is usually a chronic cough (i.e cough lasting as long as eight weeks or more). It is not due to flu. The person often feels the need to clear the throat during the day.
- An abnormal change in voice: This is usually called hoarseness of voice. It is due to irritation of the nerve that supplies the vocal cord.
- Feeling of pain in the neck: This pain can be felt in front of the ear, and it can seem sometimes like going to the ear.
- Cervical lymphadenopathy: This is due to the spread of the cancerous cells to the lymph nodes in the neck.
Difficulty with breathing can also arise in people with thyroid cancer. This is due to compression of the cancerous thyroid mass on the trachea(windpipe).
Thyroid Gland Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
The investigations to carry out in a person suspected to have thyroid cancer include: thyroid function test, biopsy of the thyroid gland, X-rays (or computed tomography) the pectoral area and the thoracic inlet, ultrasound of the thyroid gland, thyroid scan, examination of the level of calcium, phosphorous and calcitonin level in the blood. Treatment can be total or near-total thyroidectomy for the thyroid gland.
Endocrinologists play vital roles in the detection of thyroid cancer. If you have a family doctor and you have somebody in your family that has had thyroid cancer before or if you have had breast cancer before, you can occasionally tell your doctor to link you up with an endocrinologist. This is because they are risk factors for developing cancer of the thyroid gland. The endocrinologist will do thyroid function test for you. Your TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) level, thyroid hormones(thyroxine and triiodothyronine) levels will be checked. Your calcitonin hormone level will also be checked. You can also be recommended to check for your level of calcium and phosphorus. Your endocrinologist will check for imbalances in any of the hormones to detect if there is anything wrong with your thyroid gland. Furthermore, if you have any of the signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer that has been mentioned in this article, you should visit an endocrinologist near you.
Thyroid cancer is the most common endocrine cancer. It has good prognosis most especially when diagnosed early.
Braunstein, G. (2012). Thyroid cancer. New York: Springer.
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Nix, P., Nicolaides, A., & Coatesworth, A. (2005). Thyroid cancer review 1: presentation and investigation of thyroid cancer. International Journal Of Clinical Practice, 59(11), 1340-1344. doi: 10.1111/j.1368-5031.2005.00671.x