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Thyroid Cancer Basics


Updated June 02, 2014

Close-up of a female doctor doing a medical examination. The focus is on the mature adult woman being examined.
Skynesher/Vetta/Getty Images
by Mary J. Shomon

Thyroid cancer is fairly uncommon, accounting for only 1.2% of all new cancers in the United States annually. Although thyroid cancer is still a cancer that requires treatment and lifelong monitoring, and can have debilitating effects on patients, survival rates are, high, with 95% of all thyroid cancer patients achieving what would be considered a cure, or long-term survival without reoccurrence.

Thyroid cancer affects women two to three times more than men. Besides what appears to be a hormonal or gender connection, the causes of thyroid cancer are, for the most part, not known.

There are four types of thyroid cancer: Papillary, Follicular, Medullary, and Anaplastic.

Papillary cancer is the most common type of cancer, perhaps because papillaries are quite common in the thyroid gland. Papillary cancer mostly involves one side of the thyroid and sometimes spreads into the lymph nodes. The cure rate is very high.

Follicular cancer, the second most common type of thyroid cancer, is somewhat more malignant than papillary. The thyroid gland is comprised of follicles which produce thyroid hormones that are essential for growth and development of all body tissues. This cancer doesn't usually spread to the lymph nodes, but it may spread to arteries and veins of thyroid gland and more distantly (lung, bone, skin, etc), though that is uncommon. Follicular cancer is more common in older people. Again, the long -term survival rate is high.

Medullary thyroid cancer is the third most common type of thyroid cancer, and usually originates in the upper central lobe of the thyroid. It spreads to the lymph nodes earlier than papillary or follicular cancers. It differs from papillary and follicular cancer, however, in that it does not arise from cells that produce thyroid hormone, but instead from C cells. These C cells make the hormone calcitonin. This type of cancer can run in families, and also has a good cure rate.

Anaplastic is the rarest and most serious thyroid cancer. It can spread early to lymph nodes, thus usually the cause for a visit to the doctor is a mass in the neck. It also is the form of thyroid cancer most likely to spread to other organs beyond the thyroid or lymph nodes. This type of thyroid cancer is more common in those over 65 and in men. Long-term survival rates are far less than for the other three types of cancer.

See an in-depth review of thyroid cancer, available treatments, follow-up care, and links to support groups and other resources now.

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