Thyroid cancer occurs when cells in the thyroid gland grow out of control and produce malignant tumors. The thyroid gland is located below the Adam’s apple in the front part of the neck. It generally cannot be seen or felt. It is butterfly shaped, with 2 lobes joined by a narrow central section. The thyroid gland has two main types of cells – follicular cells and C cells (also called parafollicular cells). Different cancers develop from each kind of cell, and each type requires a very different type of treatment. Other types of benign (non-cancerous) growths and tumors also can develop in the thyroid gland.

Thyroid Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Thyroid cancer symptoms may include:

  • A lump or swelling in the neck
  • Pain in the front of the neck
  • An increasingly hoarse voice
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • A cough that won’t go away

Diagnostic tests for thyroid cancer include blood tests to determine thyroid hormone levels and imaging tests, such as:

A biopsy – a sample of tissue removed from the thyroid, then viewed by a pathologist under a microscope to look for cancer cells – may also be necessary.

Thyroid Cancer Treatment

The specific thyroid cancer treatment you receive will depend on the stage of your thyroid cancer and other circumstances. However, it may include one or more of the following:

  • Radiation therapy – uses focused, high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing
  • Chemotherapy – the use of drugs to stop cancer cells from multiplying in the body
  • Thyroid hormone therapy – taking daily pills of thyroid hormone to help the body maintain normal metabolism (by replacing missing thyroid hormone after surgery) and to help stop any remaining cancer cells from growing (by lowering TSH levels)
  • Targeted therapy – the use of drugs or other substances to more precisely identify and attack the cancer cells or genetic mutations specific to your tumor sub-type

Thyroid Cancer Surgery

Treatment for thyroid cancer depends on the stage of your cancer, your overall health and your preferences. Your doctors will work closely with you to determine which type of treatment option is right for you.

Very small thyroid cancers that have a low risk of spreading in the body might not need treatment right away. Instead, you might consider active surveillance (a “watch and wait” approach) with frequent monitoring of the cancer. In some people, the cancer might never grow and never require treatment. In others, growth may eventually be detected and treatment can be initiated.

If you do undergo surgery, your surgeon will either remove the entire thyroid, which is called a thyroidectomy. Or part of your thyroid will be removed in what is called a thyroid lobectomy. These operations are often performed by making an incision on the outside of your neck.

However, BIDMC is one of a few centers in the U.S. that offers transoral surgery for thyroid cancer. This innovative procedure is done by making three small incisions in the inner lip, leaving no visible scar after surgery. Like any surgical procedure, the incisions in the lip heal over time.

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Our endocrine surgeons have specialized experience in operating on tumors of the thyroid gland and perform hundreds of these surgeries a year.

Endocrine Surgery

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Our program is home to cutting-edge research and a nationally-recognized fellowship program, establishing BIDMC as a leader in the field of endocrinology locally and globally.

Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism