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Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer and Thyroid Growth Nodules

A thyroid nodule is simply a lump or growth on the thyroid gland.  The thyroid gland is a butterfly shaped gland located below your voice box.  In most situations, thyroid nodules do not produce any symptoms, they are usually detected during a medical examination for things such as the flu or colds.

The thyroid gland is comprised of a few different types of tissue, depending on the tissue involved, there may occasionally be some noticeable signs and symptoms. If the nodule is large enough, and located on only one side of the neck, it may be noticeable, but usually they are not visible.

There also may be some pain when the thyroid gland is touched, and infrequently the nodule can cause a small amount of pain in the neck, leading up into the jaw and ear when the head is turned. These symptoms are not always present even in larger thyroid growths.

If the nodule becomes large enough, it can produce some mechanical difficulties including difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath and a constant tickling feeling in the throat as the nodules presses on the windpipe and throat.  Sometimes the person´s voice will become more coarse.

The function of the thyroid gland is to produce hormones that help regulate metabolism.  These hormones are named T3 and T4.  If the nodule is made of the same tissue as which produces there hormones, there is a likelihood that T3 and T4 levels will be elevated.  This will cause a condition called hyperthyroidism.  The symptoms of hyperthyroidism would be an increased metabolism, which would make the person feel hot, have a fast and erratic heartbeat.  The person would also be tired, but would have difficulty sleeping.  One of the most noticeable signs is trembling of the hands.  The individual´s weight may also change drastically as they are burning more energy, but also would have an increased appetite.
It is important to know that not all thyroid growths and nodules would produce hyperthyroidism.  This occurs only if the tissue that produces T3 and T4 are involved with the growth and only if the abnormal cells also produce the hormones.

Obviously the most important topic regarding a thyroid growth is the risk of cancer.  The chances that a thyroid nodule is cancerous is less than 10%, and significantly lower than that if the patient has no family history of thyroid cancer.  The risks are also much lower if the patient has not been exposed to excessive radiation.  If both the family history and exposure to radiation are negative, the chance of a nodule being cancer is about 1%.

When a nodule is detected, usually a small needle biopsy will be performed.  A needle is inserted into the nodule and cells are extracted and later examined under a microscope to ensure they are not cancerous.  A needle biopsy has about a 25% chance of not returning a result, in which case it needs to be done again.  This does not signify a problem, simply that not enough cells were extracted the first time.

Thyroid cancer is rarely life threatening.  If the results come back positive for cancer, the nodule is removed surgically.  If the nodule is non-cancerous, normally it is simply monitored with a follow-up exam every six months.  In some cases, large benign growths are removed surgically, but more often are shrunk using chemicals.

Reviewed: Peter Sedesse, MD

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