Head and neck, surgical, radiation, and medical oncologists in the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid cancer. Our multi-specialty team offers services required for the treatment of this complex disease. If you have questions or want to make an appointment, call (713) 798-5900.

What You Need to Know

The thyroid gland maintains your metabolism, weight and overall health. Because it is one of the most active glands in our bodies, it is not unusual for the thyroid gland to become enlarged over time and to develop irregular changes in size, shape and firmness. It is important to keep in mind that for the vast majority of patients with abnormal thyroid glands, the underlying condition is benign. However, thyroid cancer incidence is increasing in the United States, although reasons for this increase remain unclear.

Risk Factors

Exposure to excessive radiation (nuclear accidents, nuclear power plant workers, and radiation-based cancer treatments in the past) is the main risk factor for thyroid cancer. However, low-level radiation, in the form of medical testing, airplane trips, etc., is not considered a risk factor for thyroid cancer. A family history of thyroid cancer may be a risk factor and should be determined in the setting of abnormal thyroid function or thyroid gland size.

Generalized enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter) due to iodine deficiency is rare in the United States and other developed countries.

Symptoms

Exposure to excessive radiation (nuclear accidents, nuclear power plant workers, and radiation based cancer treatments in the past) is the main risk factor for thyroid cancer. However, low-level radiation, in the form of medical testing, airplane trips, etc. is not considered a risk factor for thyroid cancer. A family history of thyroid cancer may be a risk factor and should be determined in the setting of abnormal thyroid function or thyroid gland size.

Generalized enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter) due to iodine deficiency is rare in the United States and other developed countries.

Additional symptoms can include an overactive or underactive thyroid gland.

Overactive Thyroid Gland (Hyperthyroidism)

  • Feel warm
  • Sweat
  • Lose weight
  • Generalized sense of anxiety

Underactive Thyroid Gland (Hypothyroidism)

  • Feel cold
  • Lose hair
  • Gain weight
  • Low energy levels

Since all of these symptoms can be associated with many other aspects of normal life, appropriate diagnostic tests are critical.

Diagnosis

Thyroid cancer is diagnosed through blood tests and imaging. Blood testing allows physicians to determine whether the thyroid is functioning normally or abnormally. Imaging (CT or ultrasound) will allow physicians to evaluate the size of the gland and will identify any abnormal portions of the gland that may require a biopsy. If the thyroid gland appears abnormal, an ultrasound guided needle biopsy is often performed to evaluate for the presence or absence of cancer cells.

Treatment

Patients with thyroid cancer are generally treated with surgery.

Although thyroid surgery is common, the best outcomes and lowest morbidity are generally achieved by surgeons with experience in this type of surgery, who have advanced training in endocrine or head and neck surgical oncology, and those who perform the surgery on a regular basis.

In the case of very small cancers the surgeon may be able to remove half of the gland preserving most of the thyroid function of the remaining glandular tissue. Patients with advanced cancers may require radioactive iodine treatment following surgery to destroy any residual microscopic tumor cells that may be present in the body. Only very rarely will thyroid cancer patients require external beam radiation or chemotherapy as part of their treatment.