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Thyroid cancer symptoms commonly include a lump and/or swelling in the neck. While many thyroid conditions are benign, a patient who notices either of these signs should consult with a physician promptly for evaluation and treatment.

What is the thyroid?

Located at the base of the throat, the thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that produces important hormones that help the body function properly. Specifically, the thyroid is comprised of two main types of cells: follicular cells, which regulate the body’s metabolism, and parafollicular cells, which control how the body uses calcium. Thyroid cancer can develop in either type of cell.

Lumps caused by thyroid cancer

As mentioned above, thyroid cancer commonly causes a lump (nodule) to develop in the neck. These lumps typically form near the base of the neck, above the breastbone (sternum), and it’s common for them to be painless and to quickly grow in size. While the thyroid gland usually isn’t palpable, when a nodule forms, the lump can often be felt through the skin on the neck, and in some cases is even visible. Oftentimes, the lump will feel noticeably firmer than the tissue surrounding it.

It’s a smart idea—especially if you have risk factors for thyroid cancer—to familiarize yourself with how your neck normally feels, and then continue checking your neck on a regular basis for any signs of an abnormality. To check for a thyroid lump, you should:

  • Sit or stand up straight
  • Ensure that your neck muscles are relaxed
  • Tip your head backward and swallow
  • Lightly palpate the area surrounding your thyroid gland while doing so to see whether you can feel any lumps or signs of asymmetry

It’s important to remember that the presence of a lump in the neck doesn’t necessarily indicate thyroid cancer. In fact, the strong majority of thyroid nodules are benign, with less than 5% being cancerous. Nonetheless, a lump near the thyroid gland should never be overlooked. Upon discovering a lump in the neck, it’s important to promptly consult with a trained medical professional who can diagnose the cause and confirm whether the lump is cancerous.

Other thyroid cancer symptoms

In addition to a lump or swollen area in the neck, thyroid cancer symptoms may include:

  • A sore throat
  • A sensation of fullness in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Choking sensations
  • Breathing problems
  • Persistent coughing that is unrelated to a cold
  • Voice changes (thyroid cancer often causes the voice to become rough and scratchy)
  • Hoarseness
  • Ear pain
  • Fatigue

Symptoms of metastatic thyroid cancer

When thyroid cancer spreads to another area of the body (metastasizes), it can lead to organ failure and cause a number of other symptoms, including:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss

Thyroid cancer most commonly spreads to the lungs, the liver and the bones.

Is hyperthyroidism a symptom of thyroid cancer?

Many people mistakenly assume that hyperthyroidism, which occurs when the thyroid gland overproduces the hormone thyroxine, is a symptom of thyroid cancer. While there seems to be some connection between the two conditions—studies suggest that up to 20% of thyroid cancer patients also have hyperthyroidism—hyperthyroidism is not considered to be a primary symptom of thyroid cancer.

Diagnosing thyroid cancer

When evaluating a patient’s thyroid cancer symptoms, a physician will typically feel the patient’s throat to check for lumps or nodules and possibly order a CT scan, ultrasound or blood test. If cancer is suspected based on the presence of an unusual growth, the physician may perform a fine needle biopsy to obtain a small sample of thyroid tissue to be examined under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells.

Early detection of thyroid cancer is critical to providing the patient with a potentially better treatment outcome. That said, there are some longer-term health risks associated with thyroid cancer that may appear later on in life, particularly in patients who are diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer when they're young.

Moffitt’s approach to thyroid cancer treatment

At Moffitt Cancer Center, we offer highly specialized programs for managing benign and malignant tumors of the thyroid and other endocrine organs. The physicians, surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and other skilled professionals on our thyroid cancer team have world-class expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions, and our patient care philosophy is based on a comprehensive, evidence-based approach. In a single, convenient location, our patients have access to innovative therapies, including advanced non-surgical interventions and clinical trials, as well as a full range of supportive services.

Moffitt welcomes patients who would like to have their thyroid cancer symptoms evaluated. To learn more, call 1-888-663-3488 or fill out our new patient registration form online. Your cancer diagnosis is our top priority, so we’ll connect you to a cancer expert as soon as possible.