Thyroid Cancer: Knowing The Facts This Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month

September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, however, there are many individuals around the world who are still rather unaware of what the thyroid is and what to look out for. Being armed with the facts greatly increases the opportunity for early detection and diagnosis – a patient’s best chance for recovery. 

Dr. Justus Apffelstaedt, a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health management, has offered some insights to help ‘demystify’ thyroid cancer this September.  

What is the thyroid? 

A small gland located at the base of the neck, the thyroid is part of our endocrine system – the glands that produce hormones to regulate our metabolism, growth, and development, as well as our tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and even our mood.

It releases two important hormones into our bloodstream, namely triiodothyronine (T3) and tetraiodothyronine (T4), produced with iodine, which the gland takes from the foods we eat, as a necessary constituent. 

The thyroid, as small as it is, is a crucial gland. It affects, directly or indirectly, almost every function in our bodies: our temperature, our digestive system, as well as mental development.

Thyroid Disorders

While thyroid dysfunction is fairly common, diseases of the thyroid such as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are rarely cancerous and can usually be well-managed. 

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism refers to an underactive thyroid and it occurs when the gland is unable to make enough T4 and T3. The most common form of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis – an autoimmune disorder whereby the immune system mistakes the thyroid gland as a threat, and thus produces immune antibodies to attack thyroid tissue. The causes linked to hypothyroidism include medication, genetic defects, and abnormal thyroid growth.

Symptoms associated with the disorder include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Increased sensitivity to cold.
  • Constipation.
  • Dry skin.
  • Weight gain.
  • Puffy face.
  • Hoarseness as well as
  • Muscle weakness

The risk factors associated with the disease include: under active thyroid

  • Being a woman
  • Being older than 60
  • Family history
  • Stress and adrenal fatigue
  • Smoking
  • Iodine deficiency
  • Having an additional autoimmune disease, as well as
  • Leaky gut syndrome
Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, refers to an overactive thyroid whereby the thyroid releases large amounts of T4 and T3 into the bloodstream. As a result, this then accelerates the body metabolism causing unintentional weight loss and a rapid or irregular heartbeat.  

Excessive intake of iodine, some heart medication, an inflammation of the thyroid, as well as the autoimmune condition Graves disease can each lead to hyperthyroidism.

Symptoms associated with the disorder include:

  • Swelling in the neck
  • Mood swings
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Loose nails as well as
  • Sudden weight loss or gain

The risk factors associated with the disease include:

  • A family history, particularly of Graves’ disease.
  • Being female as well as
  • A personal history of certain chronic illnesses

How prominent is thyroid cancer? 

On the other hand, while thyroid cancer has a low incidence within the general population, it is still one of the more common cancers. Fortunately, with early detection, there is a high survival rate especially when a patient is diagnosed early. 

Like many cancers, thyroid cancer can have a genetic component. People with a family history of thyroid cancer, especially medullary thyroid cancer or a pheochromocytoma tumor, may have higher chances of developing thyroid cancer. In the case of breast cancer, a genetic test can be advised to determine if the patient carries genes that increase the potential risk of having the disease.

What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer? 

A key factor in early diagnosis is that doctors must not ignore patients who present early symptoms. Symptoms vary, however, some of the symptoms can be fairly generic and include: 

  • The appearance of a lump in the neck.
  • Pain in the neck and throat.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • A persistent cough not linked to a cold.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Pain and difficulty swallowing.
  • The appearance of lump or growth in the neck, as well as
  • Constant voice changes and hoarseness.

thyroid | Longevity LiveThe aforementioned signs and symptoms are not always closely related to thyroid cancer but, if they are present, medical advice is recommended.

Thyroid ultrasounds can often find changes in the thyroid, but this test is not recommended as a screening test for thyroid cancer unless a person is at increased risk, such as because of family history. 

Patients are therefore often diagnosed when seeing a doctor for lumps or swelling in the neck, or cancer can be diagnosed following a blood test or an ultrasound for another health issue. 

Treatment

The choice of treatment depends on the type of thyroid cancer, the size of the cancer, the patient’s age as well as whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other organs.

Surgery is generally the main treatment for thyroid cancer, except for some specific types of thyroid cancer. If thyroid cancer is diagnosed with a fine needle biopsy, surgery to remove the tumor and all or part of the remaining thyroid gland can be recommended.

Getting a healthier thyroid

  • Stay active
  • Monitor your salt intake:
  • Practice stress relief
  • Reduce your intake of refined sugars and processed foods
  • Eat more good fats, as well as
  • Balance your hormones: Research has found that a link between a hormonal imbalance in women and the high occurrence of thyroid disorders amongst the female sex (1).

Conclusion

The advice is to remain vigilant about your overall health and to consult your doctor with any concerns. If your doctor is unhappy with the symptoms presented, you should be referred to a specialist. They will further investigate and diagnose you in order to assess the appropriate treatment. 

Want to know more?

Sofía Vergara, star of Modern Family, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 28 years old. Click here for her top tips on maintaining the health of your thyroid.

Who Is The Author?

Dr. Justus Apffelstaedt, a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health as well as soft tissue surgical oncology. He has dedicated his professional life to breast, thyroid and parathyroid health management, and soft tissue tumors. His main interest in his field of expertise is to bring academic excellence in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health matters within reach of everyone. Dr. Justus Apffelstaedt is registered as a specialist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).

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