Thyroid Cancer Symptoms
Thyroid cancer doesn't always have symptoms, so it can be hard to detect and diagnose. In fact, some of the possible symptoms aren't actually caused by thyroid cancer itself. Instead, these symptoms can be caused by a thyroid nodule—and thyroid nodules aren't necessarily cancerous.
We have an article on thyroid nodules so that you can learn more about how these develop, but when it comes to thyroid cancer and thyroid nodules, here's the most important thing to keep in mind: most thyroid nodules are not cancerous. Most adults have thyroid nodules, and as you age, you develop more nodules. Keep in mind that 95% of all thyroid nodules are not cancerous; they are benign1.
However, most people diagnosed with thyroid cancer usually find out first that they have a thyroid nodule. Through further testing, they can be diagnosed with a type of thyroid cancer. There are 4 main types of thyroid cancer: papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer, medullary thyroid cancer, and anaplastic thyroid cancer.
Learn more about the types of thyroid cancer in our Patients' Guide to Thyroid Cancer.
Initially, though, people may go into the doctor because they notice the following symptoms and signs:
- Lump in the Neck: Not all thyroid nodules are big enough to cause a noticeable lump. Some people, though, may notice a lump in the front of their neck. You may be able to see it, or perhaps you can't see it but you can feel it. Other people may notice a lump in your neck when you swallow. The most common way that a thyroid lump (and potential thyroid cancer) is detected, however, is when a doctor performs a thyroid exam and feels your thyroid.
- Swollen Lymph Node: Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are another symptom of thyroid cancer (a symptom not related to thyroid nodules). Thyroid cancer can spread to the lymph nodes, which are scattered throughout your body to help you fight infection. The lymph nodes in your neck (you can feel them under your jaw) become swollen when you have a cold or sore throat, for example. When the infection is gone, they should return to their normal size, so if the lymph nodes in your neck stay enlarged for an extended period—and you aren't sick—you should talk to your doctor.
- Hoarse Voice: Your thyroid gland sits just below the larynx (more commonly known as your voice box). A thyroid nodule (which may be thyroid cancer) may be pressing on the voice box, causing hoarseness or voice changes. This is an uncommon way that thyroid cancer is detected.
- Difficulty Swallowing or Breathing: The thyroid is on top of your trachea—the windpipe. A developing thyroid cancer may put pressure on your trachea, making breathing more difficult. Your esophagus is below your trachea, so again, a developing thyroid cancer can cause trouble swallowing. This is also an uncommon way that thyroid cancer is detected.
- Neck Pain: Pain is usually a clue that something in your anatomy isn't working quite as it should. If you have neck pain that lasts longer than a few weeks, you should make an appointment with your doctor to figure out what's causing it. Thyroid cancer is a rare cause of neck pain but if you have neck pain combined with some of these other symptoms, be sure to mention that to your doctor.
- Throat Pain: Similar to neck pain, if you have throat pain that won't go away, you should go to see your doctor. It's a possible symptom of thyroid cancer.
The above symptoms are associated with thyroid nodules of all types, not just cancerous nodules. Since most thyroid cancers develop in thyroid nodules, it's essential to be aware of these symptoms and signs that may point to thyroid cancer. Keep in mind, however, that the majority of thyroid nodules are not cancerous, and most adults will have a thyroid nodule (or even a few of them).
The symptoms of thyroid cancer are hard to detect—and usually the noticeable symptoms are caused not by the cancer itself but by the thyroid nodule where the thyroid cancer is developing. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor.
1. Thyroid Nodules page. Cleveland Clinic Web site. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/thyroid_nodule/hic_thyroid_nodules.aspx. August 10, 2006. Accessed February 22, 2010.
- Pacini F, De Groot L. Thyroid Cancer. In: www.thyroidmanager.org. Accessed February 5, 2010. Published by ENDOCRINE EDUCATION Inc, South Dartmouth, MA 02748.
- What You Need to Know About Thyroid Cancer. National Cancer Institute Web site. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/thyroid. Accessed February 5, 2010.