Introduction: What is Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the thyroid gland. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland situated at the base of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. This gland plays an integral role in your body’s endocrine system, producing hormones that regulate the body’s metabolic rate, heart function, digestive function, muscle control, brain development, mood, and bone maintenance.
The onset of thyroid cancer is characterized by changes or mutations in the DNA of cells. The mutations allow the cells to grow and multiply rapidly. The accumulating abnormal thyroid cells form a tumor. They can also invade nearby tissue and can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.
The Importance of Early Detection
In its early stages, thyroid cancer might not cause any symptoms. But as the cancer develops, symptoms can include a lump that can be felt through the skin on your neck, changes to your voice, difficulty swallowing, pain in your neck and throat, and swollen lymph nodes in your neck. These signs warrant immediate attention and consultation with a healthcare provider.
Detecting thyroid cancer in its early stages increases the chances of effective treatment and a positive prognosis. Various diagnostic tests, including physical exams, blood tests, imaging tests, and biopsy, are used to confirm thyroid cancer.
Understanding the Stages of Thyroid Cancer
Staging is a process used to determine how much cancer is in the body and where it’s located. For thyroid cancer, the stage is based on the size and location of the tumor, whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, and whether it has spread to distant parts of the body.
This understanding is important as it guides the treatment decisions and provides an estimated outlook. The four stages of thyroid cancer, from stage 1 to stage 4, represent a progression in the cancer’s spread and severity. Each stage requires different treatment strategies and has different survival rates. Let’s delve deeper into each stage.
Stage 1 Thyroid Cancer: The Early Warning
At this earliest stage of thyroid cancer, the disease is localized within the thyroid gland. It’s defined by the presence of a tumor that is 2 cm or smaller, and it has not spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
Typically, Stage 1 thyroid cancer might not present any noticeable symptoms. Given its small size and localized nature, the cancerous growth doesn’t usually cause physical discomfort or noticeable changes. Often, an early-stage thyroid tumor might only be discovered during a routine medical check-up or a neck imaging study done for unrelated reasons.
While the subtlety of Stage 1 thyroid cancer may pose challenges for early detection, it also signals a favorable prognosis. If caught at this initial stage, thyroid cancer has an excellent survival rate. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for people with localized papillary, follicular, or medullary thyroid cancer — the types most likely to be found at this stage — is nearly 100%.
Standard treatment strategies for Stage 1 thyroid cancer typically involve a surgical approach, often in the form of a lobectomy (removal of the side of the thyroid where the cancer is located) or a total thyroidectomy (removal of the entire thyroid gland). This surgery may be followed by radioactive iodine therapy, especially if there is a high risk of recurrence. The purpose of radioactive iodine therapy is to destroy any microscopic areas of thyroid cancer that were not removed during surgery. (1)