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EXPLAINER: What is thyroid cancer? What are its symptoms and how can it be treated?

By John Patrick Magno Ranara Published Apr 18, 2023 6:05 pm Updated Apr 18, 2023 9:56 pm

News of thyroid problems hitting young women are becoming more common as of late. Recently, actress Miles Ocampo was diagnosed with Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma. Ocampo shared that she had to undergo multiple blood tests, an untrasound, a biopsy, before she eventually had to undergo a Thyroidectomy surgery.

Parasite actress Park So-dam was similarly plagued by the same type of thyroid cancer back in December 2021, where she also had to complete a surgery following her doctor’s recommendation.

The thyroid—which is the butterfly-shaped gland in your neck—produces hormones to regulate heart rate, metabolism and temperature. It becomes a problem when cells grows in number, spreading to other parts of the body.

What is thyroid cancer?

According to National Cancer Institute, thyroid cancer is a disease in which "malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the thyroid gland." However, cardiologist Willie Ong said in a vlog that a lump does not always mean cancer. It can be goiter, thyroid nodule, tonsilitis, swollen lymph nodes, Hondgkin’s lymohoma, or mumps.

Thyroid cancer can be classified into four types namely, Papillary, Follicular, Medullary, and Anaplastic.

  • Papillary is the most common one of the four and while it often affects people ages 30 to 50, it is said to happen at any age. Unlike the others, it tends to grow slowly and usually affects one lobe of the thyroid gland. 
  • Follicular usually affects people older than 50, but it seldom spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck.
  • Medullary forms in the medulla, or the inside of the thyroid, and it is the rarest of all the four types.
  • Anaplastic mostly affects people older than 60 and is the most aggressive of the four types as it grows quickly and can be difficult to treat.
Who are at risk?

Thyroid cancer is most common among women. John Hopkins Medicine stated that this may be because of hormones, which are different in females than in males.

Ong also added that those who are overweight, low in iodine, and are exposed to radiation are at risk.

What are its symptoms?

In its early stages, thyroid cancer is difficult to detect as it has very few symptoms in the beginning. However, a lump through the skin on your neck is a telltale sign that you may have thyroid cancer.

Other noticable symptoms include pain in your neck and throat, difficulty in swallowing, change in your voice with increased hoarseness, and difficulty in breathing.

Once any of these symptoms surface, it is recommended that you go see your doctor.

This is especially important for older people. In another YouTube video by Ong, wherein he talked about thyroid cancer with ear, nose, and throat doctor Gim Dimaguila, adults above 40 years old who start to feel a lump in their throats still undergo thorough evaluation to check their condition. This includes getting a biopsy and an ultrasound.

In order to find out whether it is benign or cancerous, Dimaguila explained, "Mas mataas ang chance na siya ay benign kung gumagalaw siya. Hindi siya nakadikit sa balat. Kung medyo malambot siya, hindi siya gaanong matigas. Atsaka matagal siya bago lumaki, dahan-dahan."

Can it be treated?

This disease is usually treatable even if you have a more advanced stage of it. 

The preferred method of treating thyroid cancer is through surgery to remove the thyroid, like what Ocampo and So-dam did. It may involve removing part of the thyroid, the whole thyroid, or nearby lymph glands, according to the National Health Service of the United Kingdom.

If you choose to remove your whole thyroid, you will now need to take thyroid hormones in order to cover the absence of the gland.

Other treatments include chemotheraphy or undergoing radioactive iodine treatment, where you will be intaking a radioactive substance that travels through your blood and kills the cancer cells. Afterwards, you still need to continuously visit the hospital to have you checked in case there are still issues that need medical attention.

Dimaguila reminded that it's important not to skip check-ups so as to prevent bigger problems. "Kung cancer 'yan, kahit na hindi natin galawin, kakalat at kakalat 'yan, at it will later on cause problems."