Thyroid cancer is a fairly rare form of cancer that affects more women than men, and is more frequently found in people under 55 compared to many other forms of adult cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there were over 60,000 cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed in 2013 and around 1,850 deaths.[i] There are a few forms of thyroid cancer, the most common of which is papillary, accounting for about 80 percent of all thyroid cancers. Papillary thyroid cancer is very slow growing and has an excellent prognosis when diagnosed early – in fact many papillary tumors never pose a threat to health. Follicular thyroid cancer affects around 10 percent of all people with thyroid cancer and is also fairly slow growing. Less common forms of thyroid cancer are medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancers, which can be more aggressive.
Causes and Symptoms
While exact causes of thyroid cancer aren’t certain, a change in your DNA may be to blame. These changes could be inherited genetically or caused by exposure to free-radicals or radiation. Thyroid cancer risk is increased if you have been exposed to radiation, particularly of the head, neck and chest. People who have gone through radiation treatment for other forms of cancer are at a higher risk for developing thyroid cancer.
Symptoms of thyroid cancer include a noticeable growth on the thyroid, pain in the neck and ears, trouble swallowing, hoarseness, trouble breathing, and persistent cough.[ii] Sometimes thyroid cancer is asymptomatic – in fact, a growing number of thyroid cancers are detected on ultrasound, which are often performed for other reasons or as part of a general endocrinological screening.
A long term study was conducted by the Mayo Clinic which suggests that the slow-growing papillary thyroid cancer is being over-diagnosed and excessively treated. The diagnosis of thyroid cancer has tripled in the last 30 years, however the rate of death for thyroid cancer has remained the same, according to researchers. The Head of the American Cancer Society, Dr. Otis Brawley believes that “overdiagnosis of thyroid cancer is a huge problem, and overtreatment of thyroid cancer is an even greater problem. Overdiagnosis is finding something that looks like cancer that will never kill someone. A lot of these quiet things are found because we are an imaging-crazy society right now.”[iii] This leads to many people having their thyroid removed for a cancer that may not ever pose a serious health threat. Papillary cancer can, however spread to other areas of the body including the lymph tissue, so the removal of a nodule with papillary cancer is a decision to make with as much information as possible.
Thyroid cancer is diagnosed through the use of fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy. This test is relatively successful at diagnosing papillary, medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancers. It, however, cannot take a large enough piece of tissue to accurately diagnose follicular cancer. When a FNA biobsy comes back inconclusive, many doctors suggest removing half or all of the thyroid to test for follicular cancer. Unfortunately, 75 percent of indeterminate nodules are found to be benign after surgery, according to a study published in the October 2012 edition of “Thyroid.”[iv]
There is a new test that can be run on an FNA biopsy sample called the Afirma thyroid test. The Afirma test is performed by the Veracyte laboratory and relies on a genetic encoding test to reveal if an indeterminate nodule has the genes for cancer “turned on.” It can effectively rule out false positives as well as come back with a “suspicious” determination, at which point the patient and doctor have more information to work with when deciding whether surgery is appropriate. Not all doctors perform this test, so seek out a physician who can run the Afirma test before having surgery to remove an indeterminate nodule – it could save your thyroid.[v]
The Relationship Between Hashimoto’s and Thyroid Cancer
There is a statistical correlation between thyroid cancer and the autoimmune condition Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. It seems that Hashimoto’s sufferers have a higher risk for developing thyroid cancer. The prognosis for those with both Hashimoto’s and thyroid cancer is actually statistically better than those who don’t have Hashimoto’s, according to the American Thyroid Association, however.[vi] Hashimoto’s may be triggered by the cancer, or the inflammatory nature of Hashimoto’s might trigger cancer, researchers are unclear on the exact nature of the relationship between the two diseases.
The usual treatment protocol for thyroid cancer is removing the affected lobe or the entire thyroid. Some physicians still suggest radioactive iodine treatment to kill off every thyroid cell after surgery. Risks of thyroidectomy include damage to the parathyroid – a gland responsible for regulating calcium in the body. Another complication is damage to the vocal chord nerve which can result in short-term or permanent changes to the voice. In rare cases, or if the cancer has spread to the lymph, lungs, bones or other organs, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be necessary.
An important consideration is whether to have half or all of the thyroid removed when a cancerous nodule is discovered. This will be a decision made between patient and doctor. Many people with half a thyroid are still able to produce adequate thyroid hormones and avoid lifelong hormone replacement therapy, which makes a lobectomy preferable than removing the entire thyroid if possible. Most physicians recommend a course of watchful waiting to monitor the remaining thyroid tissue if you only have half your thyroid removed.
Natural cancer treatments are controversial and should be approached as either adjunct treatment or primary treatment under the care of a specialized natural practitioner. Effective natural cancer diet programs include Gerson Therapy[vii] and the Budwig Protocol.[viii] Herbs like dandelion, turmeric, burdock, reishi mushrooms and many others have shown anti-cancer effects in clinical research. Essiac tea is a traditional Ojibwe formula that has been used successfully to treat many cancers for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.[ix] Be sure to tell your doctor about any herbal supplements you take, or seek out a Functional Doctor who can help you work with both allopathic and natural therapies.