All too often symptoms of thyroid cancer (like a pain in the neck), are ignored. Dr Justus Apffelstaedlt tells us what to look out for…
Thyroid cancer is one of the more common cancers. Luckily though, with early detection, it has a high survival rate.
If it is caught early, patients have a survival rate of 98,1% at five years, according to surveillance, epidemiology, and end results.
Don’t ignore early symptoms
A key factor in early diagnosis is that doctors must not ignore patients who present with early symptoms. Some of the symptoms may be fairly generic and include:
- A lump in the neck
- Pain in the neck and throat
- A persistent cough not linked to a cold
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain and difficulty swallowing
- The appearance of lump or growth in the neck.
- Constant voice changes and hoarseness
Check your neck twice a year
These days, many thyroid cancers are discovered in asymptomatic patients that have an ultrasound of the neck for unrelated reasons.
In addition, specialists recommend that people examine their own neck and throat twice a year to check for any abnormal lumps or growths.
In South Africa, the incidence of thyroid cancer is low, as it is in the rest of the world. According to CANSA, almost half of people older than 40 years of age have a thyroid nodule. However, most are benign – only 7% to 15% are malignant. That said, there has been an increase in cancer cases.
In 2016, around 64 300 cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed worldwide, around double the number of cases diagnosed in 2002. The good news is that, despite an increased diagnosis of thyroid cancer, mortality rates have remained relatively stable.
Family history plays a role
Thyroid cancer, like many cancers, can have a genetic component. People with a family history of thyroid cancer, especially medullary thyroid cancer or a pheochromocytoma tumour, may have higher chances of developing thyroid cancer.
As in the case of breast cancer, a genetic test can be advised to determine if the patient carries genes that increase the potential risk of having the disease.
The above-mentioned signs and symptoms are not always closely related to thyroid cancer but, if they are present, medical advice is recommended.
Thyroid cancer is very well cured today, according to the US Institute of Cancer. Nonetheless, early detection does remain crucial for survival. Luckily, these days thyroid cancer is detected earlier than in the past even though there is no standard or routine screening test for thyroid cancer.
Thyroid ultrasound can often find changes in the thyroid, but this test is not recommended as a screening test for thyroid cancer unless a person is at increased risk, such as because of a family history.
Patients are therefore often diagnosed when seeing a doctor for lump or swelling in the neck, or the cancer can be diagnosed following a blood test or an ultrasound for another health issue. So, as always, the advice is to remain vigilant about your health overall and to consult your doctor with any concerns.
Dr Justus Apffelstaedt is a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health as well as soft tissue surgical oncology.
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