Thyroid cancer

An uncommon type of cancer found in the thyroid, which is a small gland located at the base of your neck.

About thyroid cancer

The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck. It produces two main hormones – thyroxine (T4) and triodothyronine (T3).

These both play an important role in keeping the body working normally. The thyroid also produces calcitonin, which works with the parathyroid hormone to regulate the amount of calcium in the blood.

Thyroid cancer is uncommon and has a high cure rate. Women are more likely to develop it than men.

The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a painless lump or swelling at the front of the neck. Other symptoms include:

  • swollen lymph glands
  • difficulty swallowing
  • hoarseness
  • a sore throat that doesn't go away

Different types of thyroid cancer

There are different types of thyroid cancer.

Papillary thyroid carcinoma
The most common type of thyroid cancer. It affects all age groups but is more common in younger people (under 40) and women. This type of thyroid cancer is usually slow growing.

Follicular thyroid carcinoma
It is usually found in middle-aged people. It less frequently goes to the lymph nodes but can sometimes spread to other parts of the body, including the lungs or bones.

Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer are sometimes called 'differentiated' thyroid cancers. They are often treated the same way.

Medullary thyroid carcinoma
A rare type of thyroid cancer. Can be caused by an inherited faulty gene and may run in families. Can sometimes spread to the bones or lungs.

Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma
An aggressive form of thyroid cancer. Usually diagnosed in people over 60 years of age.

Diagnosis of thyroid cancer

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, medical history and examine your neck for any lumps. Not all lumps or swellings in the thyroid gland are cancerous, most are non-cancerous (benign).

You may be referred to have different diagnostic tests including:

  • a thyroid function test – a blood test to check how well your thyroid is working
  • an ultrasound scan – a scan to check for any lumps in your thyroid that can't be felt or seen
  • a biopsy (fine needle aspiration) – a thin needle is used to take a small sample of tissue from a lump to examine under a microscope

Treatment of thyroid cancer

There are different treatment options available for thyroid cancer depending on the type of thyroid cancer, the stage it is at and whether it has spread to anywhere else in the body.

Surgery

Surgeries that treat thyroid cancer, include:

  • removing of the whole thyroid (a total thyroidectomy)
  • removing part of the thyroid (a lobectomy or partial thyroidectomy)

Surgery may be followed by a special type of radiotherapy called radioiodine to reduce the cancer coming back.

The results of thyroid cancer surgery are closely related to the experience and practice volume of the surgeon. Ask your surgeon if this represents a major part of their practice. Thyroid cancer patients are discussed at the Multidisciplinary Team Meeting (MDT meeting).

 

Non-surgical options

Radiotherapy – this is a type of internal radiotherapy using a radioactive form of iodine. It is only suitable for some thyroid cancers and is often recommended after surgery.

Targeted therapies – these are medicines that specifically target cancer cells where other options are not possible or not working.

“I had a great experience at the Cromwell Hospital; the staff were amazing, and is another level of professionalism compared to other hospitals I’ve stayed in.”

Lorne, Bupa Cromwell patient

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Published: 6 January 2030 | Review: 6 January 2023

Disclaimer: This information is published by Cromwell Hospital and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence and experience from over 30 years of treating patients. It has been peer reviewed by Cromwell Hospital doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. If you have any feedback on the content of this patient information document please email info@cromwellhospital.com or telephone 020 7460 5901.