What is Thyroid Cancer in 2018?
Thyroid cancer is usually an indolent slow growing cancer that has been over-diagnosed in the recent years due to the use of modern imaging methods such as ultrasound, 3D imaging CT and MR, and PET scan.The dramatic increase in new cases, coupled with no change in mortality is due to micro-cancer detection, biopsy, surgery and radio-iodine therapy. These are 1-1.5 nodules, or patient history of radiation or family history of first degree relatives with thyroid cancer are in need of evaluation. Family history of first degree relative with papillary thyroid cancer is a risk for these relatives. This is called Familial Non-Medullary Papillary thyroid cancer or FNMPTC. All relatives need an ultrasound as there are no blood tests or symptoms for thyroid cancer.
Diagnosis of Thyroid Cancer
The diagnosis of cancer in a thyroid nodule is first evaluated with endocrine neck ultrasound study. Some nodules are 100% benign and do not need a biopsy. Others need a biopsy and should have molecular markers tested if the result is indeterminate, before considering surgery. The diagnosis of thyroid cancer has become complicated since recent studies have shown 1/6 of all the new 65,000 cases /year have been downgraded to a benign” look alike” adenoma NIFT-P. These should not be treated as cancers anymore. A safe thing is to have your slides looked at by expert thyroid cytologist before agreeing to have the surgery.
Diagnosis of Papillary Thyroid Cancer In Doubt?
Angry thyroid “Cancer” patients wonder why no one cares about them. The physician does not call, the surgeon does not call the hospital and their pathologist don’t set up the usual recall protocol when there is a problem such as radiation causing thyroid cancer for benign conditions like tonsils.
The social media is full of comments by confused patients that had the whole treatment for papillary thyroid cancer but know wonder if they even had cancer in the first place. What can they do in 2016 when they have been labeled a cancer patient. Expensive thyroid treatments,surgeries and long standing cancer followup examinations with more radiation,more surgery they may not have needed. They may have had insurance, and medical financial breakdown and even bankruptcy due to this cancer label.
What Can You Do?
What do you do after the diagnosis of thyroid cancer?
The initial thing is to make sure you don’t have a < 1.5 cm papillary thyroid cancer, with low risk features on endocrine neck ultrasound. These include safe location away from the recurrent nerve, and trachea and no lateral neck lymph node involvement. These are “harmless” and low, low risk and can safely be followed. This is called Active Surveillance.
What type of surgery do you need with thyroid cancer?
The usual is a total thyroid removal. However, if there is a RAS mutations found on molecular marker testing on needle washout of the nodule biopsy it signifies a follicular type cancer needing only a safer surgery to remove only a lobe. Small low risk 1-1.5 cm papillary cancers can also be treated by a lobe removal.
What is thyroid cancer?
It is estimated that there were 62,000 new cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed in the US in 2015. This represents 3.8 % of all new cancer cases in the United States. The incidence of thyroid cancer is increasing. There are four major types of thyroid cancer:
Papillary carcinoma (including follicular variant of papillary carcinoma; represents 75-80% of thyroid cancers)
Follicular carcinoma (including Hürthle cell carcinoma; represents about 15% of thyroid cancers)
Medullary carcinoma (represents about 5% of thyroid cancers)
Undifferentiated (anaplastic carcinoma; represents about 1% of thyroid cancers)
There are other rare types of cancers that may be found in the thyroid including: lymphomas (cancer of the lymph gland cells), and metastases (cancers from other sites that have spread to the thyroid gland, such as melanoma, breast cancer, renal cell cancer, or lung cancer). Hürthle cell carcinoma, a variant of follicular thyroid cancer is addressed in a separate article.
Am I at risk for thyroid cancer?
Most cases of thyroid cancer are sporadic; meaning there is no obvious predisposition or risk factor for development. However, it is more common in women, occurring in a 3:1 ratio. Studies have also shown an increase of certain types of thyroid cancer in geographic areas where there is a high incidence of goiters (enlarged thyroid glands) due to lack of dietary iodine. This is further supported by the decrease of thyroid cancers in these areas when individuals are given supplemental iodine.
Familial Non medullalry thyroid cancer FNMPTC occurs in first degree relatives of patients with papillary thyroid cancer.
The most firmly established risk factor for the development of thyroid cancer is having had exposure to ionizing radiation
There is also a genetic link to thyroid cancers demonstrated in both familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (FMTC) and familial non medullary thyroid cancer (FNMPTC). Five to fifteen percent of thyroid cancers may be familial associated tumors.
Familial medullary thyroid cancer is associated with multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) type 2 syndrome and familial medullary thyroid cancer. Patients with MEN type 2 may also develop other endocrine tumors in their parathyroid gland and/or adrenal tumors, called pheochromocytoma.
FNMPTC may present more aggressively than other thyroid tumors; often with multifocal, bilateral presentation, vascular involvement, and lymph node metastases. These tumors may also have a higher risk of recurrence and distant metastases. In order to be diagnosed with a familial type of thyroid cancer, 3 first-degree relatives must also be diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The genetic basis for this familial syndrome is not well understood.
How can I prevent thyroid cancer?
As most cases of thyroid cancers are sporadic and not associated with any risk factors, there is usually no method to prevent the development of thyroid cancer. Careful examination of the thyroid and consideration of screening for patients at high risk could be considered, though general prevention of thyroid cancers is not possible. In addition, it is important that the thyroid is shielded in children who undergo diagnostic X-ray procedures, such as dental X-rays. If you have a family history of thyroid cancer, be sure to notify your primary care provider. Preventive screening in families with a strong FNMPTC history can be helpful in early detection and treatment.
What screening tests are available?
The early detection of thyroid cancers is generally through careful visual and physical examination of the neck. Palpation of the neck will detect many clinically significant thyroid cancers, which is part of a routine physical exam. In addition, the thyroid gland is included on many radiology studies performed to evaluate other organs, such as CT scans of the lungs and cervical spine. All patients suspected to have thyroid nodules, either from physical examination or from another radiology study, should have a thyroid ultrasound performed to take a picture of the thyroid. Thyroid ultrasound uses sound waves to image the thyroid gland and surrounding structures. The ultrasound appearance of the nodule can help healthcare providers determine if a fine-needle aspiration biopsy is required to further evaluate the nodule. However, there is no evidence that it is cost-effective to perform ultrasounds to screen for thyroid nodules in the general population. Notably, ultrasound detects the majority of small (95%) with thyroid nodules have normal thyroid function and the nuclear medicine thyroid scan is not indicated. For these patients, the next step in investigating a nodule is a thyroid ultrasound. Ultrasound has the ability to provide additional information about a nodule, such as its composition (solid or cystic) and its appearance (hypoechoic or dark versus hyperechoic or bright), which may increase or decrease its likelihood of being cancer. In addition, ultrasound may detect more suspicious nodules that are not able to be detected on physical exam. Ultrasound may also identify abnormal lymph nodes around the thyroid gland, which could be evaluated at the same time as the thyroid nodule. Ultrasound is an extremely powerful tool in obtaining information about a thyroid nodule.
If the ultrasound appearance of the thyroid nodule is suspicious for thyroid cancer, the next step in diagnosis may be a fine-needle aspiration of the nodule (FNA). This procedure is thought to be accurate, low risk and cost effective in evaluating thyroid nodules for suspected malignancy. The American Thyroid Association has published evidence-based guidelines for FNA of thyroid nodules that takes into account both the patient’s history for increased thyroid cancer risk (including radiation exposure and family history) and nodule size and appearance. For example, solid nodules that appear dark or hypoechoic on ultrasound that have small calcifications are more likely to be cancerous and FNA is recommended when such nodules are small (1cm), than for fluid filled nodules without these features (>2cm for FNA).
Fine needle aspiration involves placing a thin needle into the nodule, and drawing up cells from it so that they can be analyzed. Usually this is done under ultrasound guidance, meaning that an ultrasound is performed at the time of the procedure to visualize the needle placement into the nodule. FNA has a diagnostic accuracy of over 98%, though it is highly dependent on the healthcare provider’s expertise in performing the test and the pathologist’s experience in interpreting the results.
Up to 30% of FNA biopsies will return results that are inconclusive, including follicular thyroid cancer, which cannot be diagnosed by cytology alone, or an “indeterminate” result. These patients are referred for surgery, though most will end up finding out the nodule was not cancerous. Molecular-based testing is available to help determine which nodules are benign based on their genetic profile. By analyzing the samples genetic make up, doctors can identify patients who most likely have a benign nodule and therefore, can avoid surgery in these patients. This is molecular marker testing for Cancer markers and markers classified as benign types.
If a diagnosis of thyroid cancer is made, additional pre-operative work-up will be completed to determine if there is spread of disease to local lymph nodes. In some cases, additional imaging of the neck is required by the surgeon using a CT (usually without IV contrast) or, more commonly, MRI of the neck to evaluate lymph nodes, muscle or tracheal involvement. In rare cases, evaluation for metastasis to distant areas of the body including the lungs and bones is done prior to surgery.
The staging of a cancer describes how much it has grown before the diagnosis is made. Staging documents the extent of disease. Cancers cause problems because they spread and can disrupt the functioning of normal organs. One way thyroid cancers can spread is by local extension to invade through the normal structures in the throat and into adjacent structures in the neck. While this is a fairly rare complication of thyroid cancers, this tumor can spread to include the trachea and esophagus. This can cause airway compromise and difficulty swallowing.
Thyroid cancer spreads most commonly through the lymphatic system. The lymphatic circulation is a complete circulation system in the body (somewhat like the blood circulatory system) that drains into various lymph nodes. When cancer cells access the lymphatic system, they can travel to lymph nodes and start new sites of cancer. This is called lymphatic spread, and may denote a poorer prognosis. Thyroid cancer can commonly spread to the lymph nodes of the neck, though (especially with papillary thyroid cancer) this may not carry a worse outcome. The lymph nodes commonly involved in thyroid cancer are those found in the anterior portion (front) of the neck, called the cervical or jugular lymph node chains. They can be found in front of the large muscles on either side of the neck that contract when the head is turned from side to side. Tumor cells that spread to the jugular lymph nodes can then spread to the “supraclavicular” lymph nodes (found behind the collarbone) and to other lymph nodes in the neck. Eventually, they can spread to lymph nodes in the chest, called the mediastinal lymph nodes. At diagnosis, up to 30% of patients have evidence of thyroid cancer spread found on ultrasound examination of the neck lymph nodes before surgery. This information helps the surgeon determine the optimal surgical procedure for the patient.
Thyroid cancers can also spread through the bloodstream. Cancer cells gain access to distant organs via the bloodstream and the tumors that they cause are called metastases. Cancers of the thyroid generally spread locally or to lymph nodes before spreading distantly through the bloodstream. Hence, the incidence of distant metastases is low, with less than 5% of papillary thyroid cancers showing distant spread and between 5 to 20% of follicular thyroid cancers exhibiting metastases. If spread through the bloodstream does occur, the lungs and bones are the most common organs involved.
The staging system used in thyroid cancer is designed to describe the extent of disease in both the thyroid itself and the neck (with spread to the lymph nodes). The staging system used to describe thyroid tumors is the “TNM system”, as described by the American Joint Committee on Cancer. The TNM systems are used to describe many types of cancers. They have three components: T-describing the extent of the “primary” tumor (the tumor in the thyroid itself); N-describing the spread to the lymph nodes; M-describing the spread to other organs (i.e.-metastases). Thyroid tumors also utilize an additional staging identifier, residual tumor or “r”.
How is thyroid cancer treated?
The treatment of thyroid cancer is dependent on the type (histopathology) of thyroid cancer present, however it can involve multiple types of treatment including surgery, radioactive iodine, radiation therapy, chemotherapy/targeted therapy and/or thyroid suppressive therapy.
Surgery plays a central role in the treatment of thyroid cancer. The goal is removal of the tumor. There are several options for surgical procedures to treat thyroid cancer including total thyroidectomy (the removal of the entire thyroid gland), near total thyroidectomy (leaving only a small remnant of thyroid tissue with parathyroid glands, which are attached to the thyroid) and lobectomy (the removal of a single lobe of the thyroid gland). If the thyroid gland is not completely removed at the first surgical procedure, the patient is always at risk for recurrence in the portion of the thyroid left behind. Secondary operations to remove the remaining portion of the thyroid gland can also be performed. However, in patients with small (<1cm) papillary thyroid cancers, a lobectomy may be appropriate. All patients suspected to have thyroid cancer should have an ultrasound to evaluate the lymph nodes in the neck for spread of the thyroid cancer. If thyroid cancer is found to have spread to these lymph nodes, the surgeon will remove the lymph nodes at the same time the thyroid is removed. However, the role of a prophylactic removal of the lymph nodes of the neck when they are not obviously involved is unclear. The lymph nodes very close to the thyroid gland are usually dissected without much difficulty and therefore should be removed. Supplemental Thyroid Hormone Therapy Depending on the pathologic staging, patients may require additional therapy after surgery. The first and simplest is the use of supplemental thyroid hormone following surgery. Patients with near total or total thyroidectomies require supplemental thyroid hormone because the thyroid gland is no longer present. But, thyroid hormone can also act as a thyroid cancer therapy. The standard of care is to give slightly more thyroid hormone than the patient would otherwise require because this has been shown to keep any remaining thyroid cancer “asleep” or inactive through a feedback system. In other words, if the body detects that there is a sufficient amount of thyroid hormone already present (through supplementation), it will not produce signals to “turn on” the thyroid to grow and produce thyroid hormone itself. This can be quite successful in keeping residual thyroid cancers dormant. Radioactive Iodine Therapy As thyroid tissue, and some thyroid cancers, preferentially take up iodine into their cells as part of normal functioning, the use of radioactive iodine, I-131, (RAI) may also be used to kill any remaining thyroid tissue (called “remnant” ablation) and potentially any thyroid cancer cells. RAI has been shown to improve the outcome of patients with higher risk disease (specifically for patients with Stage II, III, and IV disease). The iodine is taken up into the cell and the radiation within the radioactive iodine itself is released locally, delivering a lethal dose of radiation to these cells. This treatment works well because normal thyroid cells and some thyroid cancer cells preferentially absorb and retain iodine, so other tissues are rarely affected. However, for the first few days after treatment with RAI, patients emit radiation and should avoid close contact with others. Indications for RAI include tumors with high risk features, such as sizes >2 cm, invasion of the cancer through the thyroid capsule or into the soft tissues of the neck, spread to the lymph nodes or more distantly, or recurrent disease (thyroid cancer that has come back). RAI can be a very effective therapy in many cases, though some thyroid cancers do not have ability to take up iodine, rendering RAI useless.
Recent research indicates the use of RAI may increase risk of the patient developing a myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) especially within the first two years of RAI treatments. Patients and their care teams should weigh the risks of treating low risk, well differentiated thyroid cancers with RAI. The American Thyroid association guidelines for treatment do not support treatment of low risk thyroid tumors with RAI.
Radiation therapy has been shown to be effective in certain subsets of patients; in particular those with aggressive types of thyroid cancer, those at high risk of recurrence, or those with residual disease still present after surgery. High risk features include incomplete resection, spread outside the thyroid gland to soft tissues of the neck or to regional lymph nodes, certain histological subtypes of thyroid cancer, and those cancers that do not take up RAI. It is also used in many cases of anaplastic thyroid cancer to attempt to halt this aggressive disease.
Chemotherapy has not classically been used in the treatment of thyroid cancer. However, chemotherapy drugs such as doxorubicin and cisplatin may sometimes be used in the treatment of metastatic disease, for anaplastic thyroid cancers, or disease that has progressed after RAI or radiation therapy.
Several tyrosine kinase inhibitors (type of targeted therapy) can be used in the targeted treatment of certain thyroid cancers. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors work by blocking the signals that tell cells to grow and divide. These medications include sorafenib, vemurafenib, lenvatinib, cabozantinib and vandetanib. These medications have side effects such as fatigue, rash, and hypertension, but offer effective options for patients with advanced thyroid cancer.
There are clinical research trials for most types of cancer, and every stage of the disease. Clinical trials are designed to determine the value of specific treatments. Trials are often designed to treat a certain stage of cancer, either as the first form of treatment offered, or as an option for treatment after other treatments have failed to work. They can be used to evaluate medications or treatments to prevent cancer, detect it earlier, or help manage side effects. Clinical trials are extremely important in furthering our knowledge of this disease. It is through clinical trials that we know what we do today, and many exciting new therapies are currently being tested. Talk to your provider about participating in clinical trials in your area. You can also explore currently open clinical trials using the OncoLink Clinical Trials Matching Service.
Follow up care and survivorship
Survivors of thyroid cancers require lifelong monitoring and survivorship care. There are several reasons for thi,s including appropriate monitoring and dosage of thyroid replacement hormone and evaluation for residual disease or recurrence. Thyroid cancer can recur anytime, even years after initial successful treatment. The frequency and type of testing you will require depends on the type of thyroid cancer you were treated for as well as the type of treatment(s) you have received.
You should report any new or recurrent symptoms to your care team immediately. These include: a new lump or swelling in the neck, problems swallowing or breathing, hoarseness, persistent sore throat or cough not associated with a cold, and neck pain/discomfort.
Typically survivors require regular physical neck examinations. These are typically done every 3-6 months for the first 1-2 years after treatment and then once a year after that initial time period. You may also need periodic testing including TSH, T4, T3 and Thyroglobulin (Tg) levels and neck ultrasound. Calcitonin and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) are tumor markers for medullary thyroid cancers and will be monitored regularly in these patients.
For survivors with medium or high risk tumors, you may also require a RAI whole body scan or a CT/MRI or PET scan to monitor for potential metastasis or recurrent disease.
Fertility may be impacted for patients who receive RAI, especially if given in high doses or multiple times. RAI can lower sperm counts and decrease sperm motility, especially while the radiation is still present in the body, however rarely is this a permanent problem. For women, RAI can impact ovarian function and cause irregular periods or periods to stop. This can last for several months after the RAI treatment. Women should avoid becoming pregnant for 6-12 months after RAI.
Many survivors experience challenges with managing thyroid hormone levels, which can result in hypothyroidism. Patients who have had their parathyroid glands removed during thyroid cancer treatment may also experience low calcium levels (hypocalcemia). Your healthcare team will monitor these levels and prescribe supplemental therapy as indicated.
Some patients experience changes in their voice after thyroid cancer treatment. This tends to be temporary, but some patients may experience permanent changes in the tone/quality of their voice.
Fear of recurrence, financial impact of cancer treatment, employment issues and coping strategies are common emotional and practical issues experienced by thyroid cancer survivors. Your healthcare team can identify resources for support and management of these practical and emotional challenges faced during and after cancer.
Cancer survivorship is a relatively new focus of oncology care. With some 15 million cancer survivors in the US alone, there is a need to help patients transition from active treatment to survivorship. What happens next, how do you get back to normal, what should you know and do to live healthy going forward? A survivorship care plan can be a first step in educating yourself about navigating life after cancer and helping you communicate knowledgeably with your healthcare providers. Create a survivorship care plan today on OncoLink.