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What Is Thyroid Cancer? 

The thyroid gland is at the base of the throat just above the collarbone. It is thumb-size and shaped like a butterfly, with a lobe on the right and left sides of the trachea. As part of the endocrine system, it produces hormones that help regulate blood pressure, metabolism, heart rate, weight, and body temperature.

Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the thyroid gland and can spread to nearby tissues and other areas of the body. 

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 44,200 new cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, with an estimated 2,200 deaths.

In Colorado, there are an estimated 710 new cases diagnosed annually and fewer than 50 deaths.

Thyroid Cancer Prognosis and Survival Rates 

Thyroid cancer five-year relative survival rates vary depending on the type of thyroid cancer, how far the cancer has spread, age and overall health, how well it responds to treatment, and other factors.

However, the two most common types of thyroid cancer, papillary and follicular, have encouraging five-year relative survival rates. For papillary thyroid cancer, the rate is near 100 percent, and is 98 percent for follicular.

The rates are lower in instances in which the cancer spreads to distant parts of the body, such as the bones, but still are 76 percent for papillary and 64 percent for follicular.

Why Come to CU Cancer Center for Thyroid Cancer  

The CU Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Colorado and one of only four in the Rocky Mountain region. 

The Cancer Center is home to a variety of specialists with expertise in treated thyroid cancer.  The CU Endocrinology Thyroid Program, with a nationally recognized team specializing in the evaluation and management of thyroid cancer, that provides innovative, personalized care – from diagnosis through treatment of advanced disease.

Experts in the Endocrine Thyroid Program use on-site advanced technology to offer cutting-edge evaluation, and are part of a multi-disciplinary approach to providing comprehensive, state-of-the-art treatment options. The CU Cancer Center hosts several multi-discipliinary clinics for patients with thyroid cancer, including joint surgical and endocrinology clinics for earlier stage disease, and combined medical oncology and endocrinology clinics for patients wth advanced cancers.

The program also features UCH Thrive, a clinical program for patients with thyroid cancer who are stable or in remission. It emphasizes overall health and well-being, shifting the focus from active cancer treatment to monitoring disease stability.

Our clinical partnership with UCHealth has helped lead to thyroid cancer survival rates higher than the Colorado average for all stages of thyroid cancer.

There are two main types of cells in the thyroid gland:

  • C cells, which make a hormone called calcitonin that helps control how bodies use calcium
  • Follicular cells, which make thyroid hormones from iodine in the blood and help regulate metabolism

This distinction is important because different cancers can develop in each cell type. That impacts how serious the cancer is and how it’s treated.

Types of Thyroid Cancer

The main types of thyroid cancer are papillary, follicular, medullary, and anaplastic. 

  • Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common, accounting for between 70 and 80 percent of all thyroid cancers in the United States. This type of thyroid cancer generally grows slowly and often in just one lobe of the thyroid gland. Despite its slow growth, it can spread to lymph nodes in the neck. However, even if papillary thyroid cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it often can be successfully treated and is not often fatal.
  • Follicular thyroid cancer represents 10 to 15 percent of all thyroid cancer in the United States. It is more common in areas in which people don’t get enough iodine in their diets. Follicular thyroid cancer generally doesn’t spread to the lymph nodes, but can spread to other parts of the body. While five-year relative survival rates aren’t quite as high as they are for papillary thyroid cancer, the outlook is still very good in most cases.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer represents about 4 percent of all thyroid cancers and develops from the C cells in the thyroid gland. It is able to spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body, and can be difficult to detect and treat.
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer is quite rare and represents less than 2 percent of all thyroid cancer. It can spread quickly through the neck and other parts of the body and can be very difficult to treat.

Risk Factors for Thyroid Cancer

As with most types of cancer, scientists have identified several risk factors that make a person more likely to develop thyroid cancer. Some of these factors can’t be changed and some can. Among the risk factors that can’t be changed are:

  • Age and gender: Women are about three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men. And while it can occur at any age, women are most often in their 40s and 50s when they receive a thyroid cancer diagnosis, while men are in their 60s and 70s.
  • Hereditary conditions: While most people who develop thyroid cancer do not have a family history of the disease or an inherited condition, several conditions have been linked to the disease. These include inheriting mutations in the RET gene, such as MEN2, as well as a family history of other thyroid cancers, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Cowden disease, Carney complex type I, and familial non-medullary thyroid carcinoma.
  • Family history: An increased risk for thyroid cancer can be linked to first-degree relatives with thyroid cancer.

Among the risk factors for thyroid cancer that may be changed are:

  • Exposure to radiation: This may include certain medical treatments and fallout from nuclear weapons or power plant accidents. An increased risk for thyroid cancer may be traced to head or neck radiation treatments received in childhood.
  • Being overweight or obese: The International Agency for Research on Cancer has found that the risk of developing thyroid cancer increases as body mass index (BMI) increases.
  • Low iodine in the diet: Follicular thyroid cancer is more common in parts of the world where diets are low in iodine. People in the United States generally get enough iodine in their diets because it is added to table salt and other foods.

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Information reviewed by Daniel Bowles, MD, in February 2022.