Thyroid cancer forms in the tissue of the thyroid gland, which is located in the front of the throat, below the cartilage known as the Adam’s apple. Though thyroid cancer is not considered a type of head and neck cancer, it is typically treated by an otolaryngology-trained oncologist who also treats malignancies of the mouth, nose, tonsils, sinuses, salivary glands and lymph nodes of the neck. Symptoms of thyroid cancer may include neck pain, voice changes, breathing difficulties, coughing or trouble swallowing.
The thyroid gland produces several important hormones, including the thyroid hormone, which is involved in controlling body temperature, weight, energy level and heart rate. The thyroid gland also produces calcitonin, which helps the body use calcium.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 52,890 people in the United States will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2020. Compared with other common types of cancer, thyroid cancer occurs more frequently in younger patients, with about 65 percent of cases occurring in people under the age of 55. Women are also two-and-a-half times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men.
Although the causes of thyroid cancer are still being investigated, certain factors that may increase an individual’s risk of developing the disease have been identified. These factors include hereditary conditions, gender and age. Common risk factors include:
Gender and Age: Thyroid cancers occur approximately three times more frequently in women than men, although the reason for this difference is unknown. Women also tend to develop these cancers at an earlier age (40s to 50s) than men (60s to 70s).
Certain inherited genetic abnormalities have been associated with the development of different types of thyroid cancer:
Inherited mutations in the gene called RET have been associated with the development of medullary thyroid cancers, and account for approximately one out of every four cases. This condition is known as familial medullary thyroid cancer (FMTC). If other endocrine glands are involved, the disease is then called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN 2). Individuals with this genetic mutation often develop FMTC during childhood or early adulthood. It is possible to detect many of the DNA mutations associated with FMTC using a simple blood test and this may be recommended for individuals who have a family history. Genetic counseling can help you and your family decide if a DNA test is appropriate. Currently, some doctors recommend removing the thyroid gland in individuals who have inherited the RET genetic mutation.
Other inherited genetic conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Gardner syndrome, Cowden disease and Carney complex type I, are considered risk factors for thyroid cancer, particularly papillary and follicular thyroid cancers. Even if no known inherited syndrome has been identified, thyroid cancer in a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, raises your risk of developing thyroid cancer.
Low iodine diet: A diet that contains very little iodine has been associated with an increased risk of follicular thyroid cancers. This may explain why these cancers are seen less frequently in the United States where iodine is added to salt and other foods. Individuals who do not get enough iodine in their diets may also be at increased risk for papillary cancers if they are exposed to radioactivity.
Previous treatments – Radiation exposure: Being exposed to radiation, including the kind used for certain medical treatments, as well as fallout from nuclear weapons or power plant accidents, can increase a person’s thyroid cancer risk. In particular, childhood exposure carries a greater risk of later developing thyroid cancer than exposure as an adult.