August 21, 2012 – Kankakee, Ill…It’s a gland that sits in the front part of the neck, but it cannot be seen or felt. It’s shaped like a butterfly and produces hormones that regulate the rate of metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats; growth and development; and physical and mental development and function. These are the big and important jobs of the thyroid gland.
September is National Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, and the professionals at the Regional Cancer Center of Provena St. Mary’s Hospital are raising awareness for this disease. Not only is thyroid cancer one of the few cancers that has increased in incidence over recent years, it tends to be diagnosed at a younger age than most other adult cancers.
This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 56,460 cases of thyroid cancer will be diagnosed (43,210 in women and 13,250 in men) and that 80 percent of those patients will be under 65 years of age.
“The chance of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer is now more than twice what it was in 1990,” says Patrick L. McGinnis, M.D., from Provena St. Mary’s Regional Cancer Center.“This rise is due in part to the increased use of thyroid ultrasound, which can detect small nodules on the thyroid gland that might not otherwise have been found in the past.”
Thyroid nodules are growths (lumps and bumps) in the thyroid gland. Over 95 percent of thyroid nodules are benign (not cancerous). While they can develop at any age, they occur most commonly in adults.
Dr. McGinnis continues, “The average person who has a thyroid nodule may experience some warning signs, such as a lump in the front of the neck, hoarseness, a cough, and/or difficulty speaking, swallowing, or breathing.” Dr. McGinnis is board certified in medical oncology and hematology.
While it is not known why, thyroid cancer (like almost all diseases of the thyroid) occurs more frequently in women than in men. In fact, seven of 10 people diagnosed with thyroid cancer are females. And, while thyroid cancer can occur at any age, the risk peaks earlier for women, who are most often in their 40s or 50s when diagnosed. (Men tend to be diagnosed in their 60s or 70s.)
“Find it early. That’s the most important message about thyroid cancer,” notes Dr. McGinnis. “When detected early, most thyroid cancers are treatable, and outcomes are favorable.”
The risk of thyroid cancer is also increased for individuals who were exposed to large amounts of radiation during childhood or who received radiation treatment for medical problems in the head and neck area at a young age. For these patients, the cancer may not be diagnosed until 20 years or more after the radiation exposure.
The two most common types of thyroid cancer are papillary carcinoma and follicular carcinoma.
About 80 percent of thyroid cancers are the slow-growing papillary carcinomas, with follicular thyroid cancers accounting for up to 15 percent. Most of the time, both of these cancers can be treated successfully and are rarely fatal.
“Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers have a very high long-term survival rate – over 90 percent – especially when diagnosed early,” explains Dr. McGinnis.
The prognosis for any individual who is diagnosed with thyroid cancer depends on several factors, including the type of thyroid cancer, the tumor size, whether the disease has spread to other parts of the body, and the patient’s age at the time of diagnosis.
“Thyroid cancer is one of the most survivable cancers,” says Dr. McGinnis. “Treatment is tailored to individual circumstances and can include surgery (the first and most common treatment), radioactive iodine ablation, thyroid hormone therapy, external beam radiation, or chemotherapy. Treatment often utilizes two or more of these approaches.”
He continues, “Early detection and education for patients and caregivers are the keys to improving outcomes. Thyroid cancer requires lifelong monitoring as recurrences can occur even decades after the diagnosis and initial treatment.”