Any mention of the word cancer can seem overwhelming. But if your physician discovers a suspicious thyroid nodule – either by a physical exam or on some type of imaging test like a CT scan – there’s no need to immediately jump to the worst conclusion. A diagnosis of thyroid cancer is quite unlikely. In fact, only a small percentage of people with a determined thyroid nodule need any further treatment.
“Thyroid nodules occur in almost 50 percent of adults, and the vast majority of those nodules are benign or non-cancerous. Most people aren’t aware they have them and cause no symptoms,” says Michael Roe, MD, general surgeon at University Surgical Associates who specializes in endocrine and laparoscopic surgery. “Because people are receiving more advanced imaging for other medical conditions, more of these nodules are being discovered leading to more patients being sent to a surgeon for further evaluation.”
Advanced Training, Specialized Care
The most common type of thyroid cancer (from 70-80% of diagnoses) is papillary thyroid carcinoma, a cancer that commonly occurs between the ages of 30 and 60. Women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with this type of thyroid cancer than men.
Thankfully, there’s a high success rate for treating thyroid cancer – when it’s caught in the early stages. Thyroid cancer is a surgical disease, meaning surgery is often the only treatment necessary. Radioactive iodine therapy is occasionally needed, and in very rare instances chemotherapy may be prescribed.
“Thyroid diseases (including cancer) are often managed by a surgeon who specializes in endocrinology rather than an oncologist. This is different than treatment for many other types of cancer, but is due in part to the delicate placement of these glands in the body,” says Heath Giles, MD, general and endocrinology surgeon with University Surgical Associates. “It’s the surgeon’s job to ensure glands are reached safely without negatively impacting vocal cords and other nearby structures, the glands themselves or a person’s hormone levels. This is one of the reasons we do our own ultrasounds and biopsies prior to surgery.”
Know the Symptoms
Patients and primary care physicians should be on the lookout for symptoms of thyroid cancer which include a palpable mass in the neck that can be seen or felt, difficulty swallowing, or persistent hoarseness that comes on quickly and does not subside. Individuals with other risk factors like a family history or previous head or neck radiation other than x-rays should also be carefully screened.
“If a person feels pressure or a mass in their neck, they should see a physician but not be overly fearful before the results of a biopsy are complete. There’s no reason to believe a cancer diagnosis is inevitable, but we do need to quickly sort out what’s happening and determine if further treatment is necessary,” says Dr. Roe. “For those who do eventually need surgery – whether they have a large benign tumor or a cancer – recovery is relatively quick, and most people are back to full activity in roughly a week.”
The great news is that after treatment for thyroid cancer, the majority of people never have a recurrence. But because those few who do are difficult to predict, everyone requires long-term follow up care. Dr. Roe and Dr. Giles stress that the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to act quickly on any suspicious nodule and seek prompt medical attention.
To schedule an appointment, call (423) 267-0466.