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Thyroid nodules can be benign or malignant:

  • Cells from benign nodules do not spread to other parts of the body. Most thyroid nodules (more than 90 percent) are benign.
  • Malignant nodules are generally more serious and may sometimes be life threatening. Cancer cells can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Also, cancer cells can break away from a malignant nodule and enter the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. That is how cancer spreads from the original cancer (primary tumor) to form new tumors in other organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

The following are the major types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary and Follicular: It account for 80 to 90 percent of all thyroid cancers. Both types begin in the follicular cells of the thyroid. Most papillary and follicular thyroid cancers tend to grow slowly. If they are detected early, most can be treated successfully.
  • Medullary: It accounts for 5 to 10 percent of thyroid cancer cases. It arises in C cells, not follicular cells. Medullary thyroid cancer is easier to control if it is found and treated before it spreads to other parts of the body.
  • Anaplastic: It is the least common type of thyroid cancer (only 1 to 2 percent of cases). It arises in the follicular cells. The cancer cells are highly abnormal and difficult to recognize. This type of cancer is usually very hard to control because the cancer cells tend to grow and spread very quickly.

If thyroid cancer spreads outside the thyroid, cancer cells are often found in nearby lymph nodes, nerves, or blood vessels, or to other organs, such as the lungs or bones.

Treatments and Procedures

If the diagnosis is thyroid cancer, the doctor needs to know the stage, or extent, of the disease to plan the best thyroid cancer treatment. Staging is a careful attempt to learn whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body.

The doctor may use a nuclear medicine scan of the entire body, such as a radionuclide scan known as the "diagnostic I-131 whole body scan," or other imaging tests to learn whether thyroid cancer has spread to distant sites.

Depending on the type and stage, thyroid cancer may be treated with.

  • Surgery: This is the most common thyroid cancer treatment. Your surgeon may remove all or a part of the thyroid. The type of surgery depends on the type and stage of thyroid cancer, the size of the nodule, and your age. The two common types of surgery are:
    • Total Thyroidectomy: In this surgery your entire thyroid is removed. Your surgeon may also remove other tissues in the neck, which may have been affected by the cancer.
    • Lobectomy: In this surgery the lobe with the cancerous nodule is removed. Your surgeon also may remove a part of the remaining thyroid tissue or nearby lymph nodes.
  • Radioactive Iodine Therapy: This form of therapy uses radioactive iodine (I-I3I) to destroy thyroid cancer cells anywhere in your body. This therapy is usually given orally (liquid or capsules) in a small dose.
  • Chemotherapy: Anticancer drugs used to treat thyroid cancer are usually given by an injection into a vein (IV). Chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy as primary treatment (instead or surgery) or to shrink the tumor before surgery. It may also be used after surgery and to treat cancer that has spread to other organs.
  • Radiation Therapy: This therapy uses high - energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation is directed at the neck or at parts of your body where the cancer has spread. Radiation therapy is used mainly to treat people with advanced thyroid cancer that does not respond to radioactive iodine therapy.
  • Hormone Treatment: This treatment is usually given after surgery for papillary and follicular cancer. When you take thyroid hormone pills, the growth of any remaining thyroid cancer cells slow down, which lower the chances of the disease recurring. After surgery of I-I3I therapy (which removes or destroys thyroid tissue), you may need to take thyroid hormone pills to replace the natural thyroid hormone.