BY JIM HOWE
Thyroid cancer can usually be cured if caught early, and one type of abnormal thyroid growth may no longer be considered a cancer at all.
The thyroid, a small gland at the base of the neck, produces hormones that control metabolism — things like heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure — and can develop growths, often called nodules. With the prevalence of medical scanning, thyroid nodules are being discovered more frequently, often when the neck area is scanned for another reason.
While some nodules are cancerous and threaten to spread, others are “indolent,” meaning they tend to grow slowly, stay in one spot and not alter normal thyroid functions.
One type of thyroid nodule — affecting 10 percent to 20 percent of thyroid tumors — is so indolent that an international panel of experts recently recommended deleting the cancer term “carcinoma” from its name and treating it less aggressively.
This name change not only reflects a new approach to diagnosis and treatment, it can help avoid scaring the patient, explains Scott Albert, MD, division chief of breast, endocrine and plastic surgery at Upstate.
“By reclassifying this tumor and taking the word ‘cancer’ out, it may be helpful in having the discussion of how you may not need all the treatments that a typical thyroid cancer may get,” Albert said.
This might mean treating the nodule as more of a chronic disease to monitor, rather than surgically removing the entire gland. After the thyroid is removed, patients usually receive oral radioactive iodine or external beam radiation to finish off any remaining thyroid cells, and then patients take a thyroid hormone pill for the rest of their lives.
Chemotherapy is rarely employed for thyroid cancer, but some targeted drug therapies are coming into use.
In any case, Albert says, “the vast majority of patients do very well after the diagnosis of thyroid cancer and treatment.”
Thyroid cancer incidence
The American Cancer Society predicts 62,450 people will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer this year.
Nearly three of four will be women.
This article appears in the summer 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine. Hear a radio/podcast interview with Albert that explores this topic as well as the thyroid’s functions and the uses of scans, biopsies and radioactive iodine.