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Why Is This America's Fastest-Growing Cancer?

By Hillary Eaton ; Updated August 14, 2017

With more than 14 million people living with cancer in the U.S. today and over 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed yearly, it’s safe to say that you or someone you know has had a brush with cancer. Though cancer death rates have been in steady decline in the U.S., there is one form that is on a startling rise: thyroid cancer.

You read that right. Cancer-related deaths have been trending downward for both men and women over the past decade, meaning that more people are able to recover from the disease than before. Yet the diagnosis rate of thyroid cancer has increased by 5 percent over the past decade for both men and women nationwide.

What Exactly Is Thyroid Cancer?

The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front part of the neck, is responsible for producing thyroid hormones from iodine in the blood. These hormones affect your metabolism rate, which means they influence how fast or slow your brain, heart, muscles and liver work. So, yeah: They’re kind of important.

According to the American Cancer Association, thyroid cancer occurs when the cells in the thyroid gland begin to grow out of control. When normal thyroid cells grow old or get damaged, they die and new cells take their place.

The National Cancer Institute explains that when this process goes wrong, new cells form when the body does not need them and old or damaged cells do not die as they should. That leads to a buildup of extra cells that form a mass of tissue called a nodule — aka a growth or tumor.

While most thyroid nodules aren’t cancerous, if the nodes are malignant it indicates cancer. There are two main types of cells in the thyroid that account for 80 to 90 percent of thyroid cancers: follicular cells (that are in charge of thyroid hormone production) and C cells (that control how calcium is used in the body).

These differences are important because they will depend on what type of cancer is diagnosed and what type of treatment is needed. Thankfully, if detected early, most of these types of thyroid cancer can be treated successfully.

But Why IS Thyroid Cancer on the Rise?

Gary Bloom, executive director of ThyCa: Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association, Inc., tells us: “Medical professionals largely attribute the increase in thyroid cancer diagnoses to better imaging techniques, which has led to the discovery of many more micropapillary thyroid cancers — very small tumors that are usually less than 1 centimeter in size. However, some of the increase seems to have been in larger tumors, which is unrelated to better imaging.”

So is it overdiagnosis rather than an actual epidemic? According to a report published in JAMA, thyroid cancer has long been a common find during autopsies, despite never having caused symptoms during a patient’s life, indicating that nodules are extraordinarily common.

Theoretically, you can live with thyroid cancer without it negatively impacting you. So if you pair that with an increase in physical examinations of the neck and diagnostic imaging, you end up with more people diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which would indicate a rise in the disease.

“The discussion of overdiagnosis typically comes up with regards to a very small papillary (the most common) thyroid cancer,” Bloom explains. “The best course of action may be to watch and wait, rather than to actively treat.” He emphasizes that this form is not to be confused with rare variants of typical thyroid cancer and medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancers, which can be aggressive and difficult to treat.

Overall, there is not enough evidence to definitively explain why thyroid cancer is on the rise in America — whether it is due to overdiagnosis or something else.

Can You Protect Yourself Against Thyroid Cancer?

Bloom says that the best thing to do is avoid radiation at all costs. “It is important to limit exposure to head and neck radiation. For most people, the only exposure to radiation will be dental X-rays.” While this exposure is generally very limited, request a neck shield in addition to the chest shield that is usually provided.

Regular screenings can also catch thyroid cancer in earlier stages. “Anyone can get a neck check when they go for routine health checkups, whether from their internist/general practitioner or dentist (usually performs a cursory head and neck checkup). And for women their gynecologist often performs a neck checkup,” Bloom explains. You can always request one from your general practitioner. It takes less than a minute to perform and needs no special equipment.

There’s also a simple swallow test that you can perform with a partner at home if you want to stay on top of things. “The easiest way to do the self-check is at the dinner table!” Bloom tells us. “Sit across from someone, take a small amount of water into your mouth, tilt your head back so your neck is fully exposed, and have your dinner companion tell you when to swallow. The companion should stare at the outline of your neck looking for small bumps. Once completed, switch roles.”

How to Help Spread Awareness

“There is a great need to spread awareness about thyroid cancer, including that it occurs in all age groups, from children to seniors,” Bloom says. “We also need greater awareness about what to do after the diagnosis. It is especially important to be sure what type of thyroid cancer has been diagnosed, whether treatment is needed and, if so, what treatment.”

Bloom also explained that, similar to other cancers, it is increasingly important to support research and funding in order to find a cure as well as to learn to better manage and prevent this cancer.

If you would like to learn more, visit ThyCa: Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association, Inc., a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to spreading awareness about this disease, providing support and education and funding research.

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