Dr. Erik Alexander

Thyroid cancer involves a cancerous growth in the thyroid gland. But unlike most cancers, thyroid cancer is on the rise: About 37,000 new cases were detected last year.

Here’s what you need to know about thyroid cancer:

1. Much of the spike in detection is accidental

We aren’t aware of any new hazard that causes thyroid cancer. More people are getting CT scans for other reasons, and that is how the cancer is often found. Risk factors for thyroid cancer include family history, exposure of the thyroid gland to radiation and being older than age 40. 

2. Dental X-rays are likely not a threat

Although radiation in the head and neck increases your risk of thyroid cancer, dental X-rays contain an extremely low dose of radiation and generally focus on the jaw and teeth.

3. Women are more likely to have thyroid lumps

A thyroid nodule is an abnormal growth of thyroid cells that forms a lump. But while nodules are more common among women, they tend to more often be cancerous in men.

4. Nine out of 10 thyroid lumps are not cancer

Usually, a thyroid lump is benign. But it still needs to be biopsied, just in case. If you notice a bulge in your neck or you have difficulty swallowing that persists for at least two weeks, see your doctor.

5. Treatment works

If cancerous cells are found, the thyroid gland is removed via surgery, and patients must take thyroid replacement therapy, a daily pill, for the rest of their life.

Should you worry about your own risk? Not if you’re proactive about your health. Here’s what to do to prevent:

Know your history

Your doctor should examine your thyroid if a family member has had thyroid problems before. Also tell your doctor if you received head and neck radiation during childhood, suggests the National Cancer Institute.

Do a self test

Tip your head back and take a drink of water. As you swallow, look at your neck in the mirror: Your thyroid is located between your Adam’s apple and your collarbone. A healthy thyroid is a little larger than a quarter and cannot be felt through the skin; if you see any lumps or protrusions in your neck, talk to your doctor.

Ask for a neck apron before dental X-rays

Although dental X-rays have a low dose of radiation, it’s still a good idea to use lead aprons and a separate neck apron over the thyroid area, especially for children under 16.

Eat your fruits and vegetables

A diet high in antioxidants and low in saturated fat can reduce your risk of thyroid and other cancers. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, recommends The American Cancer Society.

Dr. Erik Alexander is a spokesperson for the American Thyroid Association and an assistant professor in the department of endocrinology, diabetes and hypertension at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.


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Health - Thyroid Cancer: 5 Facts About the Fastest-Growing Cancer