Thyroid cancer in young adults is on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancer is one of the most common cancers in young adults (ages 20-39); it is the #1 cancer in women ages 15-30 and the #2 cancer in women ages 30-45.
Many young adults are unaware of the risk factors, diagnoses and treatment options when it comes to thyroid cancer, so we interviewed Melanie Goldfarb, M.D., Associate Professor of Surgery, Director for the Endocrine Tumors and Disorders Center, and Medical Director for Cancer Survivorship at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute to get the answers to your top questions.
What is someone’s lifetime risk of developing thyroid cancer?
The lifetime risk of being diagnosed with a clinically relevant thyroid cancer is small, but has been increasing steadily over the years, tripling over the past three decades. It is more commonly seen in younger adults than older ones. Luckily, the majority of thyroid cancer is very treatable and survivors live long, healthy, productive lives.
Why is the thyroid important for our bodies?
The thyroid is part of the Endocrine system of your body. Its role is to produce, store and release hormones to your bloodstream to be carried out to your body’s cells. It helps regulate your metabolism, temperature, how fast or slow your brain, liver, heart, and other organs work. Essentially, it is the gland that allows you to have energy and overall well-being.
How do I know if I have thyroid cancer? What are the common symptoms?
Thyroid cancer generally doesn’t produce any symptoms. Most people don’t realize they have it because a benign or cancerous growth isn’t going to make your thyroid function any less or more than usual.
Sometimes, if your thyroid cancer has grown to a larger size, you could feel a lump in your neck, but most thyroid cancer is not discovered until imaging tests are ordered for unrelated reasons or a clinician feels something on their exam.
When someone is referred to you, how do you diagnose thyroid cancer?
I perform a thyroid ultrasound right there in the clinic on every patient referred for a thyroid nodules or goiter; it is an integral part of the consultation and simply an extension of my physical exam. Neck ultrasonography is the best, most sensitive and specific method of evaluating thyroid nodules, thyroid goiters, neck lymph nodes, and it’s a painless process. All ultrasound images are then reviewed with you in real time, so together we can come up with a personalized, individual treatment plan.
What are the treatment options for thyroid cancer?
Thyroid cancer is a surgical disease, so almost all patients will have some form of surgery (occasionally we can consider monitoring very small, sub-centimeter cancers). The extent of surgery will depend on the type and stage of your thyroid cancer, but the majority of patients go home the same day of surgery (have an outpatient procedure). A tiny incision is made in your neck and most patients heal very well with minimal residual scar by 6 months.
More advanced thyroid cancers will also be treated with radioactive iodine pills after surgery, which work by targeting the thyroid tissue in your body and emitting radiation very slowly (for up to year) to kill thyroid cells.
You can learn more about our treatment options here: Treatment Options
What support groups are available to young adults facing thyroid cancer?
There are many services available to anyone facing cancer. I’ve listed a few popular young adult resources below.
- ThyCa, Thyroid cancer survivors organization that also has a large and active young adult membership.
- Live Strong, which is an organization that from a policy standpoint is promoting young adult cancer.
- Teen Cancer America, which is focused on transforming the lives of teens and young adults with cancer.
- Stupid Cancer, which connects you with your community and strives to make it all suck a little less.
- On the Saint John’s Cancer Institute, Cancer Support page, we have a variety of survivorship programs for thriving, healing, and wellness. Our team will develop a personalized strategy to help you and your loved ones during your cancer journey. We offer free support programs including: