Understanding thyroid cancer

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The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland, in the front of one's neck beneath the voice box, produces hormones that regulates how the body uses energy. In 2012, thyroid cancer will cause approximately 1,780 deaths (1,000 women, 780 men). There will also be 56,460 new cases of the disease (43,21 in women, 13,250 in men), according to the American Cancer Society.

The thyroid creates two hormones: Thyroid hormone and calcitonin. Thyroid hormone affects your heart rate and blood pressure. Calcitonin maintains a healthy level of calcium for the body.

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells multiply haphazardly, amassing into a malignant tumor. When cancer begins in the thyroid, it is usually one of two kinds; papillary carcinoma (accounts for eight of every ten cases) and follicular carcinoma (accounts for one of every ten cases). Other, less common types include hürthle cell carcinoma, medullary thyroid carcinoma and anaplastic carcinoma.

The disease is three times more likely to afflict women. Low-iodine diets and radiation exposure may increase the likelihood of thyroid cancer.

Mario Skugor, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic, reports that typical thyroid cancer presents itself as a painless mass in the lower neck. Other possible warning signs of include pain in the neck, difficulty swallowing, a perpetual cold, breathing difficulties, swelling in the neck and vocal hoarseness, reports the American Cancer Society.

In order to properly diagnose thyroid cancer, one must undergo a physical examination, blood tests and biopsy. During the exam, a physician feels the patient's thyroid for lumps and the surrounding area for lymph nodes.The blood tests check for irregular levels of the thyroid-stimulating hormone. The biopsy is the definitive way to determine the existence of cancer. A surgeon removes a sample of thyroid tissue for a pathologist to examine.

Imaging tests (MRI scan, ultrasound, CT scan, X-ray, nuclear medicine scan) can help with staging the cancer. They generate pictures of the thyroid that illuminate the existence or absence of cancerous cells throughout the body. Sometimes, the doctor may administer a whole body scan after putting a small amount of radioactive iodine into the bloodstream. Cancer cells absorb the iodine, which is visible when scanned.

The majority of thyroid cancers are curable, reports the Mayo Clinic. Thyroid cancer treatment depends on the disease's stage and type. A surgeon may perform a  thyroidectomy to remove all or most of the thyroid through an incision in the neck. Often the surgeon will also remove swollen lymph nodes from the neck.

The patient will need to take thyroid hormone medication for the remainder of his or her life, to supply the hormone the thyroid usually produces and to squelch the production of thyroid-stimulating hormone.

After surgery, the patient often takes radioactive iodine capsules, which target the remaining thyroid tissue and seek out lingering cancer cells.

Other common therapies include traditional radiation therapy and chemotherapy, which use high-power X-rays and drugs, respectively.

Amy Y. Chen, surgeon and otolaryngology professor at Emory University School of Medicine, said, "Rarely, a pharyngectomy, esophagectomy, or laryngectomy are necessary if there is invasion of the thyroid cancer to surrounding structures."

For more information, visit the Thyroid Cancer Survivor's Association and the American Thyroid Association.