Melissa A. was just 35 years old when she got the news during a routine checkup. The mother of two young children had thyroid cancer — an illness she says “wasn’t even on my radar.” Yet statistics show that Melissa is not alone, with thyroid cancer being in the top five types of cancers to strike young adults.
Thyroid cancer is one of the top cancers diagnosed in people between 20 and 39 years of age. Worse, young women are five times as likely to get the disease as men and nearly twice as many women get thyroid cancer as they do breast cancer. So, why do we never hear anything about it? Where are the ribbons, fundraisers and awareness drives?
The first problem, experts say, may be how thyroid cancer manifests — as in, it doesn’t, at least not that you can feel. The American Cancer Society says that differentiated thyroid cancers, the most common kind in younger patients, are symptomless at first. Most are caught during a routine exam when a doctor feels a lump on the front of the Adam’s apple. (Ever wondered why your doctor puts their hand around your neck and tells you to swallow? That’s why.) Plus, there aren’t a lot of risk factors to look out for other than a family history of the disease.
Other symptoms that may appear eventually include pain and swelling in the front of the neck, hoarseness when speaking, trouble swallowing and breathing and a constant cough. Even these, however, may be slight and lead people to attribute them to other causes.
Bill S., for example, was 29 when he was diagnosed after being hit in the neck while doing a drill in his weekly karate class. “It felt tight and painful and I kept choking on my food,” he says. A quick trip to the doctor — for what he thought was tissue damage from his overzealous sparring companion — ended up showing advanced thyroid cancer. “My doctor told me that my sparring partner probably saved my life that night because we never would have caught it otherwise.”
When a nodule is felt, it needs to be confirmed through imaging and a biopsy to determine if it’s cancer. You may also get a thyroid scan using a radioactive isotope of iodine. But once the cancer is diagnosed, the prognosis is excellent for most patients, according to the University of California in Irvine. It may be one of the most common cancers, but it’s also one of the most treatable. They say the overall survival rates for young adults are 97 to 100 percent after proper treatment.
The usual course of treatment is surgery, to remove the cancer and sometimes the entire thyroid gland, followed by radioactive iodine to kill any remaining cells. Chemotherapy is generally not necessary. Afterwards, patients must take thyroid hormone replacement drugs for the rest of their lives and be monitored to make sure their levels stay in the normal range. While it may take some small lifestyle modifications, it’s definitely not a death sentence, say the UC docs.
Indeed, both Melissa and Bill recovered fully from their bout with thyroid cancer and are happily living their lives — Bill’s even returned to practicing karate.
If you feel a lump on the front of your neck or experience any of the other symptoms listed, call your doctor right away. Lumps on the thyroid are very common and seldom cancer, according to the ACS, but each one still needs to get checked out.