Thyroid disease and cancer: What you need to know

Over 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease — however, up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease aren’t aware of their condition. Dr. N. Eddie Liou, assistant professor of otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine, explains the importance of the thyroid gland, its functions, and signs and symptoms of thyroid disease and cancer.

What is the thyroid gland?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that resides on the front portion of the neck. It’s responsible for regulating protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism and is essential for survival.

Dr. N. Eddie Liou, assistant professor of otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine.
Dr. N. Eddie Liou, assistant professor of otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine.

“The thyroid gland’s job is to create, store and release thyroid hormone to the bloodstream for all the tissues in the body. Of all the glands in the body that produce hormone it contains the largest store of any hormone in any gland,” Liou said.

A dietary intake of at least 100 micrograms of iodine daily is required to ensure adequate production of thyroid hormone. Iodine is naturally present in seafood, meat, dairy products and eggs.

Hypothyroidism vs. hyperthyroidism

Hypothyroidism occurs when there is a failure of the thyroid gland to produce a sufficient amount of hormone to meet the metabolic demands of the body. Liou said a number of health factors may contribute to low thyroid hormone levels.

“There are various conditions that may lead to hypothyroidism. The most common example is autoimmune disease. There are certain drugs such as lithium, amiodarone, and interferon alpha, which also contribute to its development.”

Some of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism include weakness, fatigue, cold intolerance, weight gain and voice changes.

On the flipside, hyperthyroidism occurs when there is an elevated amount of thyroid hormone.

The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave’s disease. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include heart palpitations, irritability, moist skin, anxiety and weight loss.

“Leaving hyperthyroidism untreated can lead to increased blood pressure, bone loss, cardiac arrhythmias and even sudden cardiac death,” he said.

 Thyroid nodules and cancer

Nodules refer to abnormal growths on the thyroid gland that could be benign or cancerous. Many thyroid nodules are not visible to the naked eye, so Liou says it’s important to look out for symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or breathing, hoarseness and neck pain or discomfort.

“Nodules can be uncomfortable and cosmetically displeasing. However, the most important reason for early detection is to ensure that cancer is treated quickly if it’s present.”

Those between ages 45-51 tend to be diagnosed more frequently with thyroid cancer. The American Thyroid Association recommends those who are 35 years and older be screened every five years.

Diagnosis and treatment options

The good news about thyroid cancer is that it’s highly treatable. In fact, the five year survival rate for thyroid cancer is about 98 percent. This has a lot to do with how early the diagnosis is made, Liou said.

The mainstay of figuring out what’s inside of a thyroid nodule is to perform an ultrasound.

“Despite having advanced technology like X-rays and MRI, something relatively simple like the thyroid ultrasound is actually the best way of diagnosing and characterizing a nodule,” he said.

Liou says treatment of a thyroid nodule can range from just a follow -up visit if it’s benign, to surgical removal of the thyroid if it’s cancerous. Surgery may also be required if a nodule is causing functional issues such as dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).

Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be diagnosed with a blood test. Hypothyroidism is usually treated with supplements to help increase hormone levels. Radioactive iodine therapy and anti-thyroid medications are normally prescribed to treat hyperthyroidism.

Additional Resources

To schedule a visit with a Baylor thyroid specialist, call 713-798-4736 or make an appointment online.

Visit the American Thyroid Association website for more information.

-By Nicole Blanton

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