There are several different types of thyroid cancer. Because there are currently no tests available to screen for the condition, it is usually detected after a lump or swelling appears at the front of the throat. To reach a diagnosis, a physician will typically order a biopsy and microscopic examination of a sampling of cells from the growth or mass in the thyroid.
The thyroid produces a series of important hormones that regulate the body’s heart rate, metabolism, muscle control and bone development. In general, thyroid cancer develops when some of its cells undergo a change and begin to divide and multiple at a rapid rate. The resulting accumulation of cells can form a tumor, which can potentially spread to other organs and tissues. Thyroid cancer is assigned a type based on the origin of the abnormal cells and is sometimes assigned a subtype based on the individual characteristics of those cells.
The four main types of thyroid cancer are:
Papillary – The most common type of thyroid cancer, this condition affects approximately three times more women than men and is usually diagnosed in patients between the ages of 30 and 50. While it can potentially invade other tissues, the cancer is usually not aggressive and typically does not spread beyond the neck. Papillary thyroid cancer is a form of well-differentiated thyroid cancer, which tends to grow and spread more slowly than undifferentiated cancer cells.
Follicular – Another type of well-differentiated thyroid cancer, this condition is less common, representing about 10 to 15 percent of all cases. Like papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer affects approximately three times more women than men. The condition is seen most often in patients between the ages of 40 and 60. The cancer cells can potentially invade the blood vessels and travel to the bones or distant organs like the lungs. Hürthle cell thyroid cancer is a rare variant of follicular thyroid cancer.
Medullary – This type of thyroid cancer encompasses about 5 to 10 percent of all cases. The condition is often diagnosed in patients between the ages of 40 and 50, and women and men are affected equally. Scientists believe that medullary thyroid cancer may have a genetic component. It develops in the parafollicular cells that produce calcitonin, which regulates the body’s calcium and phosphate levels and promotes bone health.
Anaplastic – This condition is relatively rare, affecting approximately 5 percent of all thyroid cancer patients. It usually develops in patients who are age 65 or older and is diagnosed more often in women than men. Anaplastic thyroid cancer tends to be more aggressive and invasive than other types of thyroid cancer.
The prognosis for thyroid cancer can be excellent when the condition is caught early and managed appropriately. At Moffitt Cancer Center, our cancer outcomes exceed or are on par with national averages. Moffitt is a high-volume cancer center, and we offer innovative testing techniques, highly specialized diagnostic services and evidence-based approaches to treatment. Additionally, each patient case is reviewed by a multispecialty tumor board to ensure the best possible care. Many of our physicians also serve on the boards that create national guidelines and care standards for thyroid cancer patients.