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Thyroid cancer

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck.  It is part of the endocrine system and it makes and releases thyroid hormone which controls many aspects of metabolism including heart rate, energy consumption and body temperature.

What is thyroid cancer?

Cancer of the thyroid gland is an uncommon form of cancer, accounting for approximately 1% of cancers diagnosed in the UK annually.  It usually arises from the thyroid cells (thyrocytes) ‘papillary’ or ‘follicular’ thyroid cancer, or more rarely from ‘C’ cells (medullary thyroid cancer).  Other unusual and aggressive forms include Hurthle Cell and Anaplastic thyroid cancer.

What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer?

The most common symptom is a painless growth, or lump, in your neck (though in most cases, this is benign, not cancerous). Other symptoms include:

  • Losing your voice
  • Hoarseness
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck

What causes thyroid cancer?

It’s not clear what causes thyroid cancer, but there are certain risk factors that make you more likely to get it, such as:

  • Exposure to radiation, e.g. radiotherapy
  • Being obese
  • Family history of thyroid cancer
  • Thyroid nodules in patients under the age of 30 or over the age of 70 and in males, are more likely to be cancerous

How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?

If you have developed a lump in your neck or any of the other above symptoms, see your doctor.

To help make a diagnosis, they will ask you about your medical history and symptoms, and perform a physical examination, checking your neck for a lump.

Thyroid cancer is diagnosed using a biopsy called a ‘fine needle biopsy’ which is performed under ultrasound guidance.

How is thyroid cancer treated?

Treatment options vary individual by individual. Your treatment depends on a range of factors, such as the stage the cancer is at, your own wishes and your health profile.

The type of surgery you have will depend on the stage of the cancer – how far the cancer has spread.

In most cases you’ll be offered surgery (either hemi- or total thyroidectomy with or without lymph node excision).

Radioiodine therapy is administered after total thyroidectomy in medium-high risk cases.  This is a safe treatment where you swallow a pill or liquid that has radioactive iodine in it, which destroys cancer cells in the thyroid gland and the thyroid gland itself.

Aggressive forms of thyroid cancer may need more extensive surgery and rarely chemotherapy (including targeted therapy).  Radiotherapy is not generally beneficial for thyroid cancer.

As thyroid cancer can recur, your doctor will offer follow-up appointments, for the first few years after your treatment.

Your doctor will discuss your options with you in detail and recommend what they think is the best option.

If you’re unsure what treatment you should go for, or the above treatments don’t work for you, our team of expert specialists are here to help.

This content has been checked and approved by

Miss Aimee Di Marco  ›

Miss Aimee Di Marco is an Endocrine Surgeon at King Edward VII’s Hospital.

Find your specialist in thyroid cancer at King Edward VII's Hospital

Dr Malcolm Prentice  ›
Special interests include:
Diabetes (+ 18) more
Miss Aimee Di Marco  ›
Special interests include:
Parathyroid surgery (+ 11) more

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