Thyroid cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the United States – however, it is one of the most treatable. More than 98 percent of patients diagnosed with thyroid cancer survive five years or more after diagnosis.
Dr. James Suliburk, associate professor of surgery and chief of endocrine surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, explains common signs, risk factors, treatments, and innovations on the horizon for thyroid cancer.
Common risk factors
Risk factors for thyroid cancer range from genetic predisposition to radiation exposure.
“People who have a family history of thyroid cancer need to be aware they have an increased risk,” he said. “However, the main risk factor is external beam radiation. Those who’ve had a previous malignancy treated by radiation therapy have a higher risk of developing thyroid cancer.”
Exposure to nuclear radiation and occupational-related radiation also increase risk for developing thyroid cancer.
Symptoms of thyroid cancer and next steps
Thyroid nodules, or masses, are often the first sign of cancer. Patients may notice a large bump on the neck. Suliburk says these masses should be examined as soon as possible.
“What makes thyroid cancer serious is the potential for uncontrolled growth of tumor tissue within the thyroid,” he said.
A series of functional and imaging tests are performed on the mass to determine next steps for treatment.
“We do a blood test to check the thyroid function and an ultrasound to get better imaging of the mass,” Suliburk said. “Based on the imaging characteristics, we may get a biopsy. If the mass is benign, then we consider how symptomatic the mass is. If it’s causing pressure, difficulty swallowing or infringement on the airway, we can do surgery to remove the side of thyroid that has the mass.”
Surgery to remove the thyroid gland may also be required if the mass is cancerous.
“Depending on the size of the mass, we will remove half or the entire thyroid. We will then tailor a treatment plan to give the patient the best cure and quality of life,” he said.
Follow-up care and future treatments
Suliburk says post-operative scarring is minimal and patients should expect a timely recovery.
“People can expect to return to work within one to two weeks after surgery. We then see patients for a post-operative check-up within one to three weeks. Patients should follow up with an endocrinologist every six months, as they will provide guidance on replacing thyroid function with hormones.”
Suliburk says a range of minimally invasive therapies are on the horizon to treat thyroid cancer at Baylor.
“For people with masses less than a centimeter, we’re in the process of developing non-operative management where only surveillance is used,” he said. “We are also developing a therapy where ethanol would be used to shrink tumors.”
To visit the Endocrine Surgery Clinic at Baylor, call 713-798-2262 or schedule an appointment online.
See resources for Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month.
-By Nicole Blanton