World Thyroid Day is 25 May. We spoke with Associate Professor Michael Elliott about this common but often curable cancer.
Thyroid cancer is usually very slow developing and for this reason many patients often don’t notice the signs and symptoms.
Chris O’Brien Lifehouse thyroid specialist A/Prof Michael Elliott says, “These days the vast majority of thyroid tumours are picked up because the patient has a scan for some unrelated issue. Very occasionally patients will find a metastatic lump in their neck which originated from thyroid cancer.”
The good news is that thyroid cancer is highly curable. There are two different types and most people have the good type which carries a high cure rate.
“It is good to be able to tell a patient from the outset that even though they have thyroid cancer, they will almost always have a good outcome and there is a very low chance that they will succumb to their disease. For a doctor, it’s great to be able to put that in perspective,” says A/Prof Elliott.
However, he notes that there are cases of very aggressive cancers, such as anaplastic thyroid cancer which is universally fatal, but is very rare.
Surgery and radioactive iodine are the most widely used treatment options. Radioactive iodine treatment is where a capsule of radioactive substances is swallowed and these are absorbed by the thyroid cells. Radioactive iodine kills these cells while leaving other healthy cells unharmed.
“For most people, they undergo very straightforward surgery which doesn’t cause major long-term problems.”
However, over the past 10 years there has been a lot of research into changing the treatment approach, with an emphasis on personalised treatment programs. Specialists take a selective approach to whether the whole thyroid needs to be removed or just part of it and whether further radioactive iodine is required.
“A lot of the research is about working out which of these patients we can safely offer more limited treatment to. In many instances we can adopt a watch and wait approach as it is such a slow developing disease.”
The long-term impacts of thyroid cancer are minimal in comparison to other head and neck cancers with the main issue being changes to the quality of voice. Swallowing is not an issue post-surgery nor is the surgery disfiguring.
“The operation doesn’t leave much trace, a faint incision on the patient’s neck is all that’s required. The patient will generally retain a good quality of life after the surgery.”
Learn more about thyroid cancer here.