Thyroid cancer

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. See your GP if you have the symptoms below. These can be caused by other conditions. It's important to get unexplained symptoms checked out.

About thyroid cancer

Thyroid cancer is most common in people in their 30s and those over the age of 60. Women are two 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

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

See your GP if you have symptoms of thyroid cancer. The symptoms can be caused by less serious causes, such as an enlarged thyroid (goitre), so it's important to get them checked out.

Your GP will examine your neck and can organise a blood test to check how well your thyroid is working.

If they think you could have cancer or they're not sure what's causing your symptoms, you'll be referred to a hospital specialist for more tests.

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.

These include:

  • other thyroid conditions, such as an inflamed thyroid (thyroiditis) or goitre – 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
  • obesity
  • a bowel condition called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • acromegaly – a rare condition where the body produces too much growth hormone

Treatment for thyroid cancer

If you are diagnosed with a thyroid cancer, your hospital consultant will discuss treatment options with you.

Treatment 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 the cancer has come back.

Outlook for thyroid cancer

Overall, the outlook for thyroid cancer is good. Around 9 in every 10 people are alive five years after diagnosis. Many of these are cured and will have a normal lifespan.

The outlook varies considerably depending on the type of thyroid cancer and how early it is diagnosed.

In up to one in four people treated for thyroid cancer, the cancer comes back in another part of the body, such as the lungs or bones. But it can often be treated again if this happens.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published May 2018

This page is due for review November 2019

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