Thyroid Cancer Symptoms & Early Warning Signs
This post will teach you how to identify thyroid cancer symptoms and teach you what to look out for if you suspect you have thyroid cancer.
It is important to understand thyroid cancer because some thyroid conditions may mimic or cause symptoms which may cause a "thyroid cancer scare".
Learn more about these conditions and how to proceed if you believe you are suffering from them...
Thyroid Cancer Basics
As far as cancer goes, thyroid cancer is actually quite common.
Put into perspective this means there are about 12 million new cases of thyroid cancer each year!
This isn't a small number which is why it's important to discuss some basics, including the symptoms of thyroid cancer.
This may have to do with how susceptible and sensitive the thyroid gland is to radiation, but there are probably many other factors at play.
The good news about thyroid cancer is that while it is very common it is easily treated (especially compared to other cancers).
In addition, it also has a very good survival rate, boasting around 95%+ 5-year survival rate.
Thyroid cancer is often caught early because of its location in the body.
Because the thyroid gland is located in your neck and because there isn't much tissue between your thyroid gland and the skin, changes to the gland are sometimes noticeable to patients.
This is both a good and a bad thing.
Good in the sense that this allows us to catch thyroid cancer very early (2), and bad in the sense that changes to your thyroid gland may be easily felt and, therefore, cause anxiety.
If you fall into this category and you are worried you might have cancer because of some changes or symptoms you are experiencing I have some good news for you:
Most cases of thyroid cancer are actually asymptomatic!
Asymptomatic is a term which basically means zero symptoms.
And again, this is both a good and a bad thing (3).
Good in the sense that whatever you are experiencing might not be anything serious and bad in the sense that how do we know if you actually have thyroid cancer.
We will talk more about some of the conditions which may lead you to believe that you have thyroid cancer, but for now, let's focus on some of the symptoms you may experience if you do indeed have thyroid cancer.
Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer
Believe it or not, most people who have thyroid cancer don't actually have any symptoms.
It's not until thyroid cancer has evolved and it has grown to a considerable size that it often causes symptoms.
Most of the symptoms of thyroid cancer, if it is large enough, tend to be from compression of anatomical objects located in the neck (4).
As you can imagine there isn't much room in the neck, especially in front of your esophagus and trachea.
So if there is a problem with the thyroid gland it is often felt fairly quickly.
Occasionally some nodules can hide "behind" the thyroid gland, but this isn't that common.
Instead, as thyroid cancer grows it tends to push on vital structures in your neck which will often lead to characteristic symptoms.
Symptoms of thyroid cancer (if it is sufficiently large) include:
- Compression of the esophagus or trachea
- Difficulty swallowing -
- Swelling or enlargement of the neck (bulge in the neck)
- Changes to speech including hoarseness
- Enlargement of lymph nodes in the neck
- Symptoms of thyroid goiter
- Pain in the neck, especially around the thyroid gland (cancer is usually painless but it may cause inflammation to the surrounding tissues)
- Constant non-productive cough
Again, these symptoms are relatively uncommon unless your thyroid cancer has grown to a large enough size.
The vast majority of cases are caught early by local physicians during a routine physical exam where your Doctor will palpate or feel your thyroid gland for changes.
If there are any irregularities felt during this exam then you will most likely be sent for an imaging study such as an ultrasound which will often show any changes to your gland.
Very rarely does thyroid cancer actually result in changes to thyroid hormone in the body.
We often think about the thyroid as the gland that helps regulate very important functions such as your heart rate, metabolism, and energy levels.
It follows that if there is cancer of that gland that perhaps these functions may become dysregulated or not work properly.
And that actually isn't true - at least not for the majority of the cases.
Most of the time thyroid function is preserved (5)(which means it's not altered) in cases of thyroid cancer.
The treatment for thyroid cancer is often complete removal of the thyroid gland and this may cause dysfunction to your thyroid hormones - but it's not the other way around.
This is important because people may believe they have thyroid cancer because they are experiencing hypothyroid or hyperthyroid like symptoms.
So just realize that most of the time those symptoms are not associated with cancer but associated with some other condition.
Conditions that may lead you to Believe you have Thyroid Cancer
When discussing thyroid cancer it's important to discuss conditions that may lead you to believe you have thyroid cancer and may prompt a search into this disease.
The conditions listed below result in physical changes to the thyroid gland which can be felt both from a symptomatic standpoint but also from a physical and anatomical standpoint.
The first of the conditions that may cause a "thyroid cancer scare" is a thyroid nodule.
Thyroid nodules are actually incredibly common with estimates that up to 7% of the entire World's population may have a thyroid nodule.
So what is a thyroid nodule?
A thyroid nodule is really just a mass or growth on your thyroid gland.
The vast majority of the time these nodules are considered benign (6)(meaning they aren't harmful).
But if you feel an irregularity or bump on your thyroid gland it will obviously cause some distress.
Take comfort in knowing that most thyroid nodules are not thyroid cancer, but some thyroid cancers may arise from thyroid nodules.
For this reason, thyroid nodules are often monitored very closely with ultrasound imaging (7).
Depending on the size, and certain characteristics, your Doctor may also order a biopsy to rule out thyroid cancer.
A thyroid goiter is another condition that may result in you believing you have thyroid cancer.
The term goiter is actually a very non-specific term and it really means an enlargement of the thyroid gland.
The problem with this term is that it doesn't say anything about the cause!
It just means an enlargement of the thyroid gland. Period.
Obviously, though, if you can feel your thyroid gland and it feels enlarged then you might be concerned you have thyroid cancer.
Don't let this be your number 1 concern.
Many causes of thyroid goiter are reversible and/or may simply just be managed with watchful waiting.
If you do feel that your thyroid gland it should be evaluated, but that by itself is not necessarily a big concern for thyroid cancer.
Another very common condition, and one that may cause symptoms that are similar to thyroid cancer is Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition of the thyroid gland in which your body starts to attack and destroy your own thyroid gland.
And this condition is actually very common as well with an incidence which may be as high as 6% of the population in some areas (9).
The issue with Hashimoto's is that it is an inflammatory disease which means that it may cause enlargement and inflammation of the thyroid gland.
This enlargement may result in compression of local anatomical objects and present with symptoms such as a painful thyroid gland, hoarseness, and swelling of the neck.
These symptoms are very similar to those of thyroid cancer so it's easy to see why some people would be concerned if they have Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
The presence of these lab markers and in combination with your symptoms may help shed light on the diagnosis.
Hashimoto's also often presents with the symptoms of hypothyroidism because it DOES cause damage to the thyroid gland.
This may also be helpful in differentiating Hashimoto's from thyroid cancer.
A thyroid cyst is an enlargement of a portion of the thyroid gland which is often filled with colloidal fluid.
Thyroid cysts really fall into the category of thyroid nodules and the reason for that is that you can't really identify a nodule as a cyst until you see it on thyroid imaging.
But it is included here because you may find through an ultrasound that you have a "thyroid cyst".
Thyroid cysts are usually benign and do not require treatment but they can be felt or palpated as a thyroid nodule and may therefore cause a scare.
What to do if you suspect you have Thyroid Cancer
So what do you do if you suspect that you have thyroid cancer or if you have any of the symptoms we discussed above?
The first step is to make an appointment with your Doctor and to determine what the actual cause is.
In most cases this visit will include the following:
- Complete history and physical exam - including thyroid exam, family history and history of radiation exposure
- Thyroid function lab tests including thyroid antibodies
- Thyroid ultrasound (if irregularity or thyroid nodule is found)
- Iodine testing
- Other blood tests such as inflammatory markers
These basic tests will provide significant information on your condition and may help guide further treatment and management.
If a thyroid nodule is found your doctor may also order a fine needle aspiration of the tissue and examine the tissue for thyroid cancer.
For most conditions (excluding thyroid cancer) it may be appropriate for your Doctor to simply monitor your condition and re-evaluate for changes with further imaging studies.
Most cases of thyroid cancer are caught early and treated completely with a procedure known as a thyroidectomy (which is the complete removal of the thyroid gland).
Because most cases of thyroid cancer are caught early they tend to not present with symptoms.
But if your thyroid cancer is sufficiently large then it may cause issues related to the anatomy of the neck.
Watch for these changes and make sure that you discuss any concerns with your Doctor.
Other conditions of the thyroid gland may also cause symptoms which may mimic thyroid cancer or cause concern for thyroid cancer.
These conditions can be evaluated with a physical exam and further testing.
Now I want to hear from you:
Are you experiencing symptoms that may be concerning for thyroid cancer?
Did you find the cause of your symptoms?
Leave your comments below!