Thyroid Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Thyroid Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

About the thyroid

Thyroid cancer begins in the thyroid gland. This gland is located in the front of the neck just below the larynx, which is called the voice box. The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system, which regulates hormones in the body. The thyroid gland absorbs iodine from the bloodstream to produce thyroid hormones, which regulate a person’s metabolism.

A normal thyroid gland has 2 lobes, 1 on each side of the windpipe, joined by a narrow strip of tissue called the isthmus. A healthy thyroid gland is barely palpable, which means it is hard to find by touch. If a tumor develops in the thyroid, it is felt as a lump in the neck. A swollen or enlarged thyroid gland is called a goiter, which may be caused when a person does not get enough iodine. However, most Americans receive enough iodine from salt, and a goiter under these circumstances is caused by other reasons.

About thyroid tumors

Thyroid cancer starts when healthy cells in the thyroid change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. The thyroid gland contains 2 types of cells:

  • Follicular cells. These cells are responsible for the production of thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone is needed to live. The hormone controls the basic metabolism of the body. It controls how quickly calories are burned. This can affect weight loss and weight gain, slow down or speed up the heartbeat, raise or lower body temperature, influence how quickly food moves through the digestive tract, control the way muscles contract, and control how quickly dying cells are replaced.

  • C cells. These cells make calcitonin, a hormone that participates in calcium metabolism.

A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread. Thyroid tumors can also be called nodules, and 90% of all thyroid nodules are benign.

Types of thyroid cancer

There are 5 main types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary thyroid cancer. Papillary thyroid cancer develops from follicular cells and usually grows slowly. It is the most common type of thyroid cancer. It is usually found in 1 lobe. Only 10% to 20% of papillary thyroid cancer appears in both lobes. It is a differentiated thyroid cancer, meaning that the tumor looks similar to normal thyroid tissue under a microscope. Papillary thyroid cancer can often spread to lymph nodes.

  • Follicular thyroid cancer. Follicular thyroid cancer also develops from follicular cells and usually grows slowly. Follicular thyroid cancer is also a differentiated thyroid cancer, but it is less common than papillary thyroid cancer. Follicular thyroid cancers rarely spread to lymph nodes.

    Follicular thyroid cancer and papillary thyroid cancer are the most common differentiated thyroid cancers. They are very often curable, especially when found early and in people younger than 50. Together, follicular and papillary thyroid cancers make up about 95% of all thyroid cancer.

  • Hurthle cell cancer. Hurthle cell cancer, also called Hurthle cell carcinoma, is cancer that is arises from a certain type of follicular cell. Hurthle cell cancers are much more likely to spread to lymph nodes than other follicular thyroid cancers.

  • Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC). MTC develops in the C cells and is sometimes the result of a genetic syndrome called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2). This tumor has very little, if any, similarity to normal thyroid tissue. MTC can often be controlled if it is diagnosed and treated before it spreads to other parts of the body. MTC accounts for about 3% of thyroid cancer. About 25% of all MTC is familial. This means that all family members will have a possibility of a similar diagnosis. The RET proto-oncogene test can confirm if family members also have familial MTC (FMTC).

  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer. This type is rare, accounting for about 1% of thyroid cancer. It is a fast-growing, poorly differentiated thyroid cancer that starts from differentiated thyroid cancer or a benign thyroid tumor. Anaplastic thyroid cancer can be subtyped into giant cell classifications. Because this type of cancer grows so quickly, it is more difficult to treat successfully.

In addition, other types of cancer may start in or around the thyroid gland. For lymphoma in the thyroid, read Cancer.Net’s Guide to Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin. For more information on sarcoma in the thyroid, read the Cancer.Net Guide to Sarcoma. For information on a tumor in the nearby parathyroid gland, read Cancer.Net’s Guide to Parathyroid Cancer.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore this related item. Please note that this link will take you to another section on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to thyroid cancer. This fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain how many people are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.