Written by Kent Holtorf, M.D.
September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month.
While it is observed worldwide and has been since 2000, many people are unaware of it. Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month was initiated by ThyCa (Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association) and originally started out as being only a week long. After three years it was expanded to the whole month of September. This awareness was put forth in an effort to encourage people to get yearly checkups for early detection and also to increase research in order to find cures for all thyroid cancers.
Thyroid Cancer is NOT the “Good Cancer”
Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month is as good a time as any to address the misconceptions and give some much needed insight into this condition, as well as stress the importance of getting your thyroid checked.
One of the biggest misconceptions of thyroid cancer is that is it the “good cancer”. That statement alone is oxymoronic because how can anyone think there is such a thing as a good cancer? Cancer is bad. This misconception has grown because when detected early, thyroid cancer is usually treatable. The treatments can vary depending on the type and can include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, radioactive iodine, surgery, and life-long daily medications. However, this isn’t always the case. Certain thyroid cancers are extremely aggressive and difficult to treat. Thyroid cancer is not the “good cancer”.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck. Though it is small it is a vital part of the body and when it doesn’t function properly, it leaves the individual in a very poor state.
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system, a collection of glands that secretes the necessary hormones into the circulatory system. It is the thyroid’s job to produce/secrete the thyroid hormones into the blood which are carried to every tissue in the body. This small but highly integrated system produces hormones that influence nearly every part of the body. These hormones keep the metabolism balanced while also maintaining healthy function of important organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver, and heart.
Simply put, this little gland has a big job.
What is Thyroid Cancer?
The simplest answer is cancer that develops from the tissues of the thyroid gland. There are various types of thyroid cancer which include Papillary, Follicular, Medullary, and Anaplastic. Of the four listed, the two most common are Papillary and Follicular.
Papillary carcinoma, being the most common, accounts for approximately 80% of cases. It is considered a slow-growing cancer that develops from follicular cells and, if left untreated, often spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck. Follicular cells are the cells within the thyroid gland that are responsible for creating and secreting the thyroid hormones.
Follicular carcinoma, which accounts for 10-15% of all cases, is slightly more aggressive than Papillary. It too stems from the follicular cells, hence the name, but will rarely spread to the surrounding lymph nodes. Instead, it is more likely to spread to other organs. Follicular carcinoma isn’t very common in the United States, but rather in areas of the world with a low intake of dietary iodine.
Both Papillary and Follicular carcinoma are considered differentiated thyroid cancers. This means that the cancer cells look and act like normal thyroid cells.
Medullary carcinoma is less common accounting for 2-3% of all thyroid cancers.
Anaplastic carcinoma accounts for only about 1% of thyroid cancers. It is one of the fastest growing tumors.
How Common is Thyroid Cancer?
The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for thyroid cancer in the United States for 2017 are:
- About 56,870 new cases of thyroid cancer (42,470 in women, and 14,400 in men)
- About 2,010 deaths from thyroid cancer (1,090 women and 920 men)
What are the Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid nodules (lumps) are very common. Most are benign (not cancerous).
Thyroid cancer is usually painless and without symptoms in its early stages.
Some symptoms that may appear include:
- Hoarseness of voice
- Chronic cough
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Difficulty swallowing
- An usual “lump” sensation when swallowing
- Nodule or growth in the neck
- Abnormally large lymph node
- Neck pain
Step by Step Thyroid Neck Check
The most common symptom across the board is a lump, nodule, or swelling in the neck.
Take advantage of Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month and get your thyroid checked at your doctor’s office. You can also perform a self-exam called the Thyroid Neck Check. This exam can help locate lumps or enlargements that may be due to thyroid conditions including benign nodules, goiter or thyroid cancer.
What you will need:
- A mirror
- A glass of water
1 – Look in the mirror
Position yourself in front of the mirror in a way that lets you clearly view your neck. Remove any sort of clothing or apparel that covers or obscures your neck such as scarves, ties, sweaters, collars, jewelry, etc.
2 – Tilt your head back
While still maintaining view of your neck, tilt your head back so that your chin is pointing upwards and your nose is directed towards the ceiling.
3 – Swallow some water
Continue holding the stretched neck position, take a drink of water (only a small amount is needed) and swallow.
4 – Watch your neck for enlargement
As you swallow, look for any sort of bulging, protrusions, or lumps that appear. Your primary area of concern should be around the thyroid gland located closer to the collar bone. Do not be tricked by the natural bulge of the Adam’s apple located in the mid-neck area. The thyroid gland is specifically located at the base of the neck above the collar bone. (Repeat as many times as you feel is necessary)
5 – Inspect your neck with your hands
Feel around the thyroid with your hands. Even if you do not see any protrusions it is important to follow up with physical touch, which can uncover hard to see abnormalities. (Repeat as many times as you feel is necessary)
6 – Consult a doctor if a problem is detected
If there are any abnormal bulges, protrusions, or lumps detected, seek medical assistance from your doctor. The presence of such anomalies could indicate an enlarged thyroid gland or nodule. Both should be inspected by someone properly trained in thyroid health to gauge whether further action needs to be taken.
About Kent Holtorf, M.D.
Dr. Kent Holtorf is the medical director of the Holtorf Medical Group with locations in Los Angeles, Foster City, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Dr. Holtorf has personally trained numerous physicians across the country in the use of bioidentical hormones, hypothyroidism, complex endocrine dysfunction, and innovative treatments of chronic fatigue syndrome, weight loss, fibromyalgia, and chronic infectious diseases, including Lyme disease.
He has been a featured guest on numerous TV shows including CNBC, ABC News, CNN, EXTRA TV, Discovery Health, The Learning Channel, The Today Show, The Doctors, Dr. Dean Edell, Glenn Beck, Nancy Grace, Fox Business, ESPN, Rush Limbaugh, CBS Sunday Morning, Sean Hannity, So Cal News, and quoted in numerous print media including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, US New and World Report, San Francisco Chronicle, WebMD, Health, Elle, Better Homes and Garden, US Weekly, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, New York Daily News, and Self magazine.