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Thyroid Cancer: Risks & Causes

Thyroid cancer is among the most frequently diagnosed types of cancers today. New information is coming out regularly about what it is, who is more at risk and the principle causes of this disease.

What Exactly is Thyroid Cancer?

The thyroid gland is located on the front of the neck, below the larynx and in front of the trachea and esophagus. A normal-sized thyroid is butterfly-shaped and consists of two lobes that are joined together with the parathyroid glands at its back.

The majority of thyroid tumors originate in the thyroid cells, which are responsible for the production of the thyroid hormone. While most thyroid nodules are benign, malignant neoplasms in the thyroid have significantly increased in recent years.

A distinction can be made among different types of thyroid cancers, depending on which tissue cells the cancer originates from:
  • Papillary
  • Follicular
  • Hurthle
  • Anaplastic
  • Medullary Carcinoma

Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

The symptoms of thyroid cancer are rarely noticeable at the early stages. It is important to note that these symptoms can also indicate other illnesses.

A feeling of pressure in the throat, a bump or lump in the neck at the level of the thyroid gland, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, voice change, shortness of breath and swollen lymph nodes in the neck can be signs of thyroid cancer. If these symptoms are present, a doctor should be consulted. If a bump or lump in the thyroid gland enlarges, a doctor should be notified as well.

Preventing Thyroid Cancer

Avoiding radiation exposure is a necessary measure in preventing thyroid cancer. Also, in some parts of the world,  iodine deficiency may be associated with an increased risk of developing thyroid cancer. The consumption of iodized foods such as seafood or sea fish as well as iodized table salt can prevent a deficiency of the trace element.

Chances of Recovery From Thyroid Cancer

When thyroid cancer is identified and treated at an early stage, the prognosis is excellent. This is especially true for people diagnosed with papillary and follicular thyroid cancer. This is also correct  for patients diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer at an early stage. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is quite rare and  has a poor prognosis.

Surgery is the most common treatment for thyroid cancer. This is sometimes followed by treatment with radioactive iodine. External beam radiation therapy and chemotherapy are rarely used to treat thyroid cancer.

Risk Factors Involving Thyroid Cancer

There are certain groups of people who are more likely to get thyroid cancer than others. Let’s look at some of its most common risk factors.

Radiation Exposure

Radiation exposure can increase the risk of malignant tumors in the thyroid gland. For example, the incidence of malignant thyroid tumors in children and adults increased significantly in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986. It can take many years for thyroid cancer to develop after radiation exposure. Additionally, radiation to the neck or areas of the body near the neck to treat another malignancy can increase the likelihood of developing thyroid cancer. Working or spending time in an environment with radiation without proper protection may also increase the chances of developing thyroid cancer.

Genetic Factors

Some people diagnosed with medullary thyroid carcinoma have a genetic predisposition to this malignancy. Medullary thyroid cancer is sometimes associated with syndromes such as Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) Type 2A and 2B. In these syndromes, several tumors form on other glands in the body instead of just the thyroid. This includes tumours of the adrenal glands (pheochromocytoma) and/or abnormalities of the parathyroid glands. Since this disease is based on a genetic abnormality that is inherited, family members of people with MEN Syndrome should speak to their health care provider and should be screened. Other forms of thyroid cancer have been shown to carry a genetic cause. People with familial adenomatous polyposis (Gardner’s syndrome) and PTEN hamartoma tumor syndrome (Cowden syndrome) may be at an increased risk of thyroid cancer. Some forms of papillary thyroid cancer have been found to run in families. It is unclear as to whether the cause is genetic, environmental or something else.

Iodine Deficiency

Iodine deficiency may increase the likelihood of developing thyroid cancer.  Iodine deficiency can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland (a condition known as goiter) which can often result in  lumps forming in the enlarged thyroid gland. In areas where people do not get enough iodine in their diet, the risk of developing thyroid nodules increases. These nodules are usually not malignant.

As people age,  the likelihood of having one or more lumps in the thyroid gland increases. These lumps are usually benign.

Treatment of Thyroid Cancer at ENT Specialty Group

Located in Westmount, Quebec, ENT Specialty Group houses a team of endocrinologists and surgeons who have experience with managing thyroid cancers, nodules and disorders.