Understanding Thyroid Cancer

Posted on February 6th, 2009 by

A guide to where the disease develops and its different forms and incidence rates

The Thyroid Gland

Located just below the Adam’s apple and wrapped around the windpipe, the butterfly-shaped thyroid gland regulates the body’s metabolism, which controls virtually every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. The thyroid absorbs iodine from consumed food and uses it (through its follicle cells) to manufacture the thyroid protein thyroglobulin and two main hormones, thyroxine (T-4) and triiodothyronine (T-3), which control body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and weight.1 The thyroid gland (through its parafollicular, or C, cells) also produces calcitonin, a hormone that helps regulate calcium in the blood. Four or more tiny parathyroid glands on its surface make parathyroid hormone, which helps the body maintain a healthy calcium level.2

How Many Thyroid Cancers Are There?

There are four types of thyroid cancers, and they arise from the two main types of thyroid cells—follicle and C cells. Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers are the most common types and have a high cure rate (97 percent) with proper treatment, which generally includes thyroidectomy (surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid gland) and radioactive iodine therapy. Medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancers have a poorer prognosis because, unlike the first two, they are faster growing and tend to be found only after they have spread beyond the thyroid to lymph nodes in the neck and other organs.3 According to the National Cancer Institute, of the thyroid cancers diagnosed in the United States, 80 percent are papillary, 15 percent are follicular, 3 percent are medullary, and 2 percent are anaplastic.2

Frequency of Thyroid Cancer Diagnoses

New cases of thyroid cancer are increasing at a rapid rate—faster than any other type of malignancy, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which estimates that 37,340 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2008, with women three times more likely to be diagnosed than men.4

Why the increase? Some experts attribute the rise to various factors, from exposure to high levels of radiation from X-ray therapy in the mid-1900s to the aftereffects of nuclear contact.5 This means baby boomers are especially at risk. Richard Hellman, MD, FACP, FACE, president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, attributes the rise to a combination of better diagnostic capabilities, increased awareness, and atmospheric radiation: “Radiation, testing, and genetics are only a small part of the story, but those exposed need to be watched closely since most forms are slow growing.”

Thyroid Cancer Resources

Information about how to relieve the side effects of treatment for thyroid cancer and support for those facing a diagnosis are available at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping or by calling the NCI’s information specialists at (800) 4-CANCER [800-422-6237].


1. Interview with President of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists Richard Hellman, MD, FACP, FACE. April 9, 2008.

2. What You Need to Know About Thyroid Cancer. National Cancer Institute Web site. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/thyroid. Accessed September 30, 2008.

3. Tools for Healthier Lives. Thyroid Cancer. Mayo Clinic Web site. Available at:
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/thyroid-cancer/DS00492/CSECTION=4. Accessed September 30, 2008.

4. What You Need to Know About Thyroid Cancer. National Cancer Institute Web site. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/thyroid. Accessed September 30, 2008.

5. Thyroid Cancer. National Cancer Institute Web site. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/thyroid. Accessed September 30, 2008.

Copyright © 2010 CancerConsultants Thyroid Cancer Information Center. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Thyroid Cancer, Uncategorized

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