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Cancer health centre

Thyroid cancer

What is thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer is a cancer that starts in the thyroid gland.

What is the thyroid?

The thyroid is a gland that makes and releases hormones into the blood.

The thyroid lies in the front of your neck in a position just below your Adam's apple. It is made up of a pair of butterfly shaped lobes that lie either side of the windpipe.

The thyroid makes three hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) that help the cells in your body to work normally and control your metabolic rate. It also makes calcitonin that helps control blood calcium levels.

How common is thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer is uncommon and is responsible for less than 1% of all cancers diagnosed in the UK.

Each year, around 3,241 people in the UK are diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In 2013, 373 people died from the disease in the UK.

It usually affects people who are middle-aged or older, and women are more likely to be get thyroid cancer than men.

What are the different types of thyroid cancer?

There are four main types of cancer of the thyroid.

The two most common types are papillary and follicular:

Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type of thyroid cancer accounting for about 80-85% cases. It is slow growing and can sometimes spread to the lymph nodes. It is more common in women and is usually diagnosed in younger people. Almost 90% of people with papillary thyroid cancer are alive 10 years or more after they were diagnosed.

Follicular thyroid cancer is diagnosed in about 5-10% of cases. It is most often diagnosed in young or middle aged people. It sometimes spreads to other parts of the body, particularly the lungs and bones. Over 80% of people who have this cancer are alive after 10 years.

Among the rarer types of thyroid cancer are:

Medullary thyroid cancer which is diagnosed in between 3-12% of cases. Around a quarter of people diagnosed with this have a faulty gene that runs in families. 75% of people with this type of cancer are alive after 10 years.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer which is more common in older people and diagnosed in around 1-3% of all cases. Unfortunately, survival rates in this category are poor with only around 15% of people alive after 10 years. Most patients with this type of cancer live between 2 to 6 months.

What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer?

You are unlikely to experience any symptoms in the early stages of thyroid cancer, although some people do notice a painless lump or swelling just below their Adam's apple.

In the later stages you may notice:

  • Unexplained hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain in your neck
  • Pain in your throat

Sometimes with medullary thyroid cancer, you may experience unusual symptoms like frequent loose bowel movements or going red in the face. This is caused by an excess of a hormone called calcitonin.

WebMD Medical Reference

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