News | Published July 27, 2012 | Written by Cheri Woll, RN, BS, CCM, oncology nurse navigator

Thyroid Cancer Basics

Did you know that thyroid cancer is one of the few cancers that has increased in incidence over recent years? Many people are not aware of the rising prevalence of thyroid cancer. It is estimated that in 2012, 56,460 Americans will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and 1,780 will die from it, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program of the National Cancer Institute.

So what is the thyroid? The thyroid gland is under the thyroid cartilage (Adam's apple) in the front part of the neck. In most people, the thyroid cannot be seen or felt. It is butterfly-shaped with two lobes - the right lobe and the left lobe - joined by a narrow isthmus. The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system which regulates hormones in the body. A main function of thyroid hormones is to regulate the body's metabolism.

Thyroid cancer is more common in women than in men - more than seven out of 10 people diagnosed with thyroid cancer are female. Also, in the United States, Caucasians are more likely than African Americans to be diagnosed with the cancer. While it can occur in all age groups, about two out of three people diagnosed with thyroid cancer are between the ages of 20 and 55.

Although better detection of smaller thyroid tumors may account for some of the increased incidence of thyroid cancer, researchers are also evaluating environmental, dietary, genetic and other factors that may be causing the increase.

Thyroid cancer is usually painless and without symptoms in its early stages. Symptoms of thyroid cancer that may appear include:

  • Hoarseness that has no known cause and does not go away
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing or an unusual sensation (a "lump") when swallowing
  • Nodule (lump) or growth in the neck
  • An abnormally large lymph node (a "swollen gland") that fails to shrink over a few months' time

If any of these symptoms occur, contact your physician. Testing for possible thyroid cancer may involve a physical exam, blood tests, imaging, or even a thyroid scan and a biopsy. If thyroid cancer is diagnosed, potential treatment includes surgery, radioactive iodine ablation, thyroid hormone replacement therapy, external beam radiation, chemotherapy including new targeted therapies, clinical trials and other specialized treatments.

The prognosis for any individual with thyroid cancer depends on many factors, including the type of thyroid cancer (there are four types and different variants of some types), the tumor size, whether the disease has spread to other parts of the body and the patient's age at the time of diagnosis. Thyroid cancer is usually highly treatable when found early.

For more information on thyroid cancer, visit or contact me at Other helpful websites are, and