What Is Thyroid Cancer?

In 2014, roughly 63,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a new case of thyroid cancer – cancer of the hormonal glands in the neck. And according to Manisha Shah, MD, a medical oncologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, thyroid cancers are on the rise.

Unfortunately, the cause for the rise in thyroid cancers is unknown. “There are multiple factors that likely play a role,” Shah says. “Some of them are unknown, but we screen a lot more now that we have access to new technologies.”

Who’s at Risk?

Women are more likely to get thyroid cancer than men at a ratio of three to one. Thyroid cancer is also most commonly diagnosed in younger people. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), nearly two out of three cases are found in people under 55 years old.

Shah says additional factors known to increase thyroid cancer risk include ionizing gradation exposure, or people who are affected by nuclear plant accidents, for example.

What are the Symptoms?

Usually there are no symptoms that indicate an individual may have thyroid cancer, which is why doctors are unable to diagnose it at an early stage.

When thyroid cancer does present with symptoms, patients often experience swelling of the neck, trouble swallowing or shortness of breath. When these symptoms are present, it is often an indication of an advanced thyroid cancer.

Are There Different Types?

Some 85 percent of thyroid cancer cases are papillary thyroid cancer. The remainder are either medullary thyroid cancer or anaplastic thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer can be broken down even further, though. “There is no routine papillary thyroid cancer,” Shah explains, “because even papillary thyroid cancer tumors are made up of different genetic defects.”

How is it Treated?

Treatment depends on the type of thyroid cancer an individual is diagnosed with. Papillary thyroid cancers are generally treated with a combination of surgery and a targeted therapy called radioactive iodine therapy. According to Shah, the development of these targeted therapies for thyroid cancer is a game changer.

“In the last three years, three drugs have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of thyroid cancer,” Shah says. “Before that, there was only one drug for thyroid cancer treatment.”

Rare types of thyroid cancer, called anaplastic thyroid cancer, are usually treated from each modality of cancer care, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.


Visit cancer.osu.edu to learn more about thyroid cancer prevention, detection, treatment and research, or watch this week’s segment of Toward a Cancer-Free World.