Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck beneath your voice box (larynx). The thyroid has two parts (lobes). A thin piece of tissue (the isthmus) connects the two lobes. It makes hormones that help the body function properly.
Hormones Produced by the Thyroid
Thyroid hormone: The thyroid follicular cells make thyroid hormone. This hormone affects heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and weight. For example, too much thyroid hormone makes your heart race, and too little makes you feel very tired.
Calcitonin: The C cells in the thyroid make calcitonin. This hormone plays a small role in keeping a healthy level of calcium in the body.
Parathyroid hormone: Four or more tiny parathyroid glands are on the back of the thyroid. These glands make parathyroid hormone. This hormone plays a big role in helping the body maintain a healthy level of calcium.
A healthy thyroid is a little larger than a quarter. It usually can’t be felt through the skin. If you notice a lump or nodule on your neck, it could be the first sign of thyroid cancer.
Lumps or bumps in the thyroid gland are called thyroid nodule. Most of these are benign (non-cancerous) but about 1 in 20 are malignant (cancerous), which means they can spread into nearby tissues and to other parts of the body. Sometimes these nodules make too much thyroid hormone and cause hyperthyroidism.
The medical term for an abnormally large thyroid gland is goiter. Some goiters are diffuse, meaning that the whole gland is large. Other goiters are nodular, meaning that the gland is large and has one or more nodules in it. There are many reasons the thyroid gland might be larger than usual, and most of the time it is not cancer. Both diffuse and nodular goiters are usually caused by an imbalance in certain hormones. For example, not getting enough iodine in the diet can cause changes in hormone levels and lead to a goiter.
Most early thyroid cancers are found when patients see their doctors because of neck lumps or nodules they noticed. If you have unusual symptoms such as a lump or swelling in your neck, you should see your doctor right away. Doctors use a physical exam, blood tests, imaging tests, and a biopsy to diagnose thyroid cancer.
People can develop thyroid nodules at any age, but they occur most commonly in older adults. Fewer than 1 in 10 adults have thyroid nodules that can be felt by a doctor. But when the thyroid is looked at using ultrasound, many more people are found to have nodules that are too small to feel.
Most nodules are cysts filled with fluid or with a stored form of thyroid hormone called colloid.
Solid nodules have little fluid or colloid. These nodules are more likely to be cancerous than are fluid-filled nodules. Still, most solid nodules are not cancer. Some types of solid nodules, such as hyperplastic nodules and adenomas, have too many cells, but the cells are not cancer cells.
Benign thyroid nodules sometimes can be left alone (not treated) as long as they’re not growing or causing symptoms. Others may require some form of treatment.
Age, gender, and exposure to radiation can affect the risk of thyroid cancer. Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Risk factors for thyroid cancer include the following:
• Being between 25 and 65 years old.
• Being female.
• People with exposure to high levels of radiation, including uranium miners, nuclear workers or those receiving radiation treatments. Children who were exposed to radiation to the head and neck are also at risk. Thyroid cancer may occur as soon as 5 years after exposure.
• Having a history of goiter (enlarged thyroid).
• Having a family history of thyroid disease or thyroid cancer.
• Having certain genetic conditions such as familial medullary thyroid cancer (FMTC), multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A syndrome, and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B syndrome.
• Being Asian.
Fortunately, thyroid cancer has a nearly 98% survival rate. Treatment depends on the type of cancer you have and how far the cancer has spread. Many patients receive a combination of treatments.
They may include surgery, radioactive iodine, hormone treatment, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses substances that attack cancer cells without harming normal cells.
If you or a loved one notices a lump in the neck, experiences frequent hoarseness or have difficulty swallowing, please seek medical advice as soon as possible. For more information about thyroid cancer symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options call Dr. Baker’s office at 606-324-2600 today. We are happy to answer any questions you might have.