Most growths on the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck, are thyroid nodules and are not cancerous, but may still need to be removed or treated. Thyroid cancers generally grow slowly and respond well to treatment if they are diagnosed and treated promptly and properly. If you have been diagnosed with thyroid nodules or thyroid cancer, you will want to know all your options — and how to make the best decisions for a healthy future. Miami Cancer Institute offers options that are not widely available elsewhere.

What are thyroid tumors?

Thyroid tumors form in the tissue of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is at the base of your throat near your voice box and releases hormones that help regulate heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, metabolism and more.

Medical illustration of thyroid and parathyroid anatomy.

Thyroid tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous. Noncancerous tumors, or thyroid nodules, may cause symptoms and need treatment.

Thyroid cancer is the most rapidly increasing cancer diagnosis in the United States, the fifth most common cancer in women and the most common cancer in women aged 20 to 34. About 2 percent of cases occur in children and teens. Though men are much less likely to develop thyroid cancer than women, women have higher survival rates. The overall survival rate is more than 95 percent.

What are the types of thyroid tumors?

Most growths on the thyroid gland are thyroid nodules and are noncancerous. They can be cysts full of fluid or overgrowths of thyroid tissue. Multinodular goiters are enlarged thyroid tumors with several nodules, and they can cause hyperthyroidism (elevated thyroid hormone).

There are four main types of thyroid cancer:

Papillary thyroid cancer. The most common thyroid cancer, papillary thyroid cancer grows slowly and affects the follicular cells. It can strike at any age and often spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck. It is highly treatable when diagnosed and treated promptly.

Follicular thyroid cancer. Follicular thyroid cancer grows slowly and affects the follicular cells, but it is more likely than papillary thyroid cancer to spread to other parts of the body, usually the lungs and bones. Still, it is highly treatable when diagnosed promptly and accurately.

Medullary thyroid cancer. Medullary thyroid cancer is usually sporadic but can be inherited. It affects the C cells of the thyroid. It is usually a relatively slow-growing cancer but often spreads to lymph nodes and can spread to other organs. Still, it is usually treated successfully, especially when detected and diagnosed early.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is rare and aggressive. It accounts for less than 2 percent of thyroid cancers and is more common in older adults. It often spreads before it is diagnosed.

What are the risk factors for thyroid tumors?

Noncancerous thyroid nodules are quite common, especially in women. In fact, as many as 30 percent of adult women have thyroid nodules large enough to be detected. One identified risk factor is iodine deficiency, but this is not a major concern in the United States, as iodine is commonly added to table salt and other foods. People with enlarged thyroids are more likely to have thyroid nodules.

Anyone can get thyroid cancer, but some factors that can increase your risk include:

Age. Nearly 70 percent of thyroid cancers are diagnosed between the ages 20 to 55. (Anaplastic thyroid cancer is more common in those aged 60 and older.)

Gender. Women are three times more likely than men to develop thyroid cancer.

Tobacco use. Smoking or using tobacco can increase your risk of thyroid cancer and most other cancers.

Family history. If thyroid cancer runs in your family, you have an increased risk.

Iodine or radiation exposure. Too much iodine or radiation exposure increases your risk of thyroid cancer.

Moderate to heavy alcohol use. Heavy drinking is usually defined as more than 14 drinks per week for men or more than seven for women.

What can you do to prevent thyroid tumors?

You may not be able to prevent thyroid nodules, and there is no sure way to prevent thyroid cancer. But you can take steps to reduce your cancer risk:

  • Quit using tobacco. Smoking and other forms of tobacco use contribute to many health problems, including most cancers. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor.
  • Limit alcohol use. Quit drinking, or have no more than a drink or two each day.
  • Avoid exposure to radiation. Use a respirator or face mask if you must be exposed to airborne sources.
  • Moderate your iodine intake. Your doctor can help you find ways to ensure proper levels of iodine in your diet.
With outcomes similar to those for open thyroidectomy, an option that leaves no scar is important for some patients, particularly those who don’t want a daily reminder of their cancer.
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Photo of Robert Udelsman, M.D.
Robert Udelsman, M.D. Chief of Endocrine Surgery

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