Thyroid cancer

Thyroid cancer is a malignant tumour in the thyroid. There are different types of thyroid cancer of varying degrees of malignancy. Thyroid cancers are grouped according to the characteristics of the tumour and the appearance of the cancer cells under the microscope. The papillary and follicular forms grow slowly and are less aggressive. These two types of cancer are fortunately far more common than the aggressive form of thyroid cancer known as medullary thyroid cancer.

The thyroid is located under the larynx and produce important hormones for the metabolism. In earlier times, there was often a benign enlargement in the thyroid gland, i.e. goitre, due to a lack of iodine. Thanks to the iodine in cooking salt, this disease has virtually disappeared from Switzerland. Thyroid cancer should be differentiated from benign changes in the thyroid gland.

Thyroid cancer is one of the rarer types of cancer. Around 750 people are diagnosed with thyroid cancer in Switzerland every year. Thyroid cancer can also manifest at a younger age. It affects women more often and makes up around three quarters of thyroid cancers.

It is unclear why thyroid cancer occurs. Excessive x-raying in the throat area, a lack of iodine and a certain familial predisposition are deemed to be risk factors. Thyroid cancer often occurs after exposure to radiation. This was observed during the catastrophe in Chernobyl.

Thyroid cancer can lead to an enlargement of the thyroid or to nodules or swelling in the throat area. Difficulty swallowing, irritation in the throat, hoarseness or difficulty breathing can be signs of thyroid cancer.

If there is suspected thyroid cancer, an ultrasound of the thyroid glands will be carried out. If lumps or tumours are detected in the process, a biopsy will be carried out and tissue samples taken under local anaesthetic. The thyroid hormones will be assessed with a blood test.

The type of tumour and the stage of the disease determines the type of treatment used to combat thyroid cancer. Wherever possible, thyroid cancer is treated surgically. Complete removal of the thyroid is usually required. However, parts of the thyroid can often also be removed if there are smaller tumours. Find out more about the surgical treatment options in the Thyroid surgery section.  After the surgery, the patient usually undergoes radioiodine therapy to eliminate any possible remaining tumour cells. The radioactive iodine spreads into the tumour cells and destroys them. Chemotherapy is rarely used to treat thyroid cancer. After the thyroid has been removed, thyroid hormones must be taken for life.