When I was young, my siblings and I were all tested for a thyroid cancer gene. Medullary thyroid cancer runs in the family on my mother’s side, caused by a genetic mutation. The presence of this particular mutation gives you a 100 percent chance of developing the cancer at a very young age — so if it’s detected, you must have your thyroid removed.
Fortunately, my siblings and I do not have the genetic mutation. But what if we hadn’t known about it? Would we have been able to detect early thyroid cancer symptoms?
According to research published in the Future Oncology Journal, thyroid cancer is 2.9 times more common in women than in men, and it’s one of the fastest growing cancer diagnoses worldwide.
“Although patients with thyroid cancer generally have a favorable prognosis compared with many other solid tumors, the American Cancer Society estimated about 2,200 deaths [originated] from thyroid cancer in the United States in 2021,” adds Basel Shoua, MD, oncologist and hematologist at Arizona Oncology. “The incidence of thyroid cancer is [also] three times higher in women than men and peaks in [a woman’s 40s and 50s].”
In effect, it’s extremely important to check for symptoms of thyroid cancer on a regular basis — especially if you’re a woman over 40.
Thyroid Cancer Symptoms — Early Signs and Warnings
According to the American Cancer Society, early signs of thyroid cancer do not differ between women and men. Here’s what to look out for:
- A lump in the neck, which sometimes grows quickly
- Swelling in the neck
- Pain at the front of the neck, sometimes reaching up to the ears
- Hoarseness, or voice changes that do not subside
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
- A constant cough that is not caused by a cold
Dr. Shoua notes that pain isn’t always present. “Thyroid carcinoma most commonly presents as a palpable, painless, solitary thyroid nodule,” he says. (A nodule is a solid or fluid-filled lump.) “Patients or clinicians discover most of these nodules during routine palpations of the neck.”
In addition, Dr. Shoua says that malignant lumps are often “hard, fixed, and painless.” Many painless nodules are benign, however, so it’s important to see a doctor for a diagnosis.
While there are four main types of thyroid cancer (papillary, follicular, medullary, and anaplastic), Dr. Shoua says that the warning signs usually don’t differ depending on the type.
What This Means for You (and What You Can Do)
Is there anything you can do to prevent thyroid cancer? Dr. Shoua thinks not, though some research suggests that certain foods have protective effects. “There has been conflicting data,” he says. “Iodine-rich food like fish and shellfish may provide a protective role against thyroid cancer, but excessive level of dietary iodine may also negatively affect thyroid function.
“Different studies and analysis found that milk products, fruits, and vegetables may be beneficial in reducing the risk of thyroid cancer, especially among women aged 50 years or older. Research from the Icahn School of Medicine, Yale University, and the Miami Cancer Institute found that an intake of a moderate amount of genistein [a flavonoid derived from legumes] may reduce the risk of thyroid cancer.”
So, what’s the takeaway? Rather than scrambling to change your diet, the best thing you can do for your health is to ask your doctor to perform a routine neck exam each year. And ask for an exam ASAP if you currently have symptoms. There is currently no cure for thyroid carcinoma, but early detection is the best medicine.