Thyroid cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects the thyroid gland, a small gland at the base of the neck that produces hormones.
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It’s most common in people in their 30s and those over the age of 60. Women are two to three times more likely to develop it than men.
Thyroid cancer is usually treatable and in many cases can be cured completely, although it can sometimes come back after treatment.
Symptoms of thyroid cancer can include:
- a painless lump or swelling in the front of the neck – although only 1 in 20 neck lumps are cancer
- swollen glands in the neck
- unexplained hoarseness that doesn’t get better after a few weeks
- a sore throat that doesn’t get better
- difficulty swallowing
When to get medical advice?
The symptoms can be caused by less serious causes, such as an enlarged thyroid (goitre), so it’s important to get them checked out.
The doctor will examine your neck and can organize a blood test to check how well your thyroid is working.
Types of thyroid cancer
There are four main types of thyroid cancer:
- papillary carcinoma – the most common type, accounting for about 8 in 10 cases; it usually affects people under 40, particularly women
- follicular carcinoma – accounts for up to 1 in 10 cases and tends to affect middle-aged adults, particularly women
- medullary thyroid carcinoma – accounts for less than 1 in 10 cases; unlike the other types, it can run in families
- anaplastic thyroid carcinoma – the rarest and most serious type, accounting for around 1 in 50 cases; it usually affects people over the age of 60
Papillary and follicular carcinomas are sometimes known as differentiated thyroid cancers. They tend to be easier to treat than the other types.
Causes of thyroid cancer
Thyroid cancer occurs when a change to the DNA in the cells in the thyroid causes them to grow uncontrollably and produce a lump.
It’s not usually clear what causes this, but there are a number of things that can increase your risk.
- other thyroid conditions, such as an inflamed thyroid (thyroiditis)or goitervvv – but not an overactive thyroid or underactive thyroid
- a family history of thyroid cancer – your risk is higher if a close relative has had thyroid cancer
- radiation exposure in childhood – such as radiotherapy
- a bowel condition called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
- acromegaly – a rare condition where the body produces too much growth hormone
Treatments for thyroid cancer
Treatment for thyroid cancer depends on the type of thyroid cancer you have and how far it has spread.
The main treatments are:
- surgery – to remove part or all of the thyroid
- radioactive iodine treatment – you swallow a radioactive substance that travels through your blood and kills the cancer cells
- external radiotherapy – a machine is used to direct beams of radiation at the cancer cells to kill them
- chemotherapy and targeted therapies – medications used to kill cancer cells
After treatment, you’ll be advised to have regular appointments to check whether cancer has come back.