The butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck is called your thyroid. When the cells in your thyroid gland become abnormal, this can lead to thyroid cancer.
Causes of Thyroid Cancer
The exact causes of thyroid cancer are not yet clear, however, all cancer is caused by genetic mutations that allow cells to grow and multiply rapidly. The mass of abnormal cells accumulates to form a tumor, and if the tumor grows large enough, it can begin to invade other nearby tissue and organs, eventually spreading throughout the entire body.
There are many different types of cells within the thyroid; therefore, different types of thyroid cancer can develop, depending on which cells are being affected. Each type of thyroid cancer is caused by different things, has different risk factors, and will determine your prognosis and treatment options. The types of thyroid cancer include:
- Papillary thyroid cancer: This is the most common type of thyroid cancer. It begins in the follicular cells of the thyroid, which are responsible for producing and storing the hormones in the thyroid. This type is most commonly seen in adults age 30 to 50.
- Follicular thyroid cancer: Also beginning in the follicular cells, this type thyroid cancer usually affects people who are older than 50. There are other, rarer forms of follicular thyroid cancer such as Hurthle cell cancer, which is much more aggressive.
- Medullary thyroid cancer: This type of thyroid cancer begins in the C cells of the thyroid. C cells are the part of the thyroid that produces the hormone calcitonin. It is easy to detect this type of cancer at an early stage because there will be elevated levels of calcitonin in the blood. Although rare, there are certain genetic syndromes that can increase your risk for developing medullary thyroid cancer.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer: This is the worst type of thyroid cancer, as it grows rapidly and is very difficult to treat. It usually occurs in adults who are 60 or older.
- Thyroid lymphoma: This form of thyroid cancer begins in the immune system cells and is very rare.
Risk Factors for Thyroid Cancer
There are only a few factors that have been determined to put you at a higher risk for developing thyroid cancer. These include:
- Being a woman: Statistically, thyroid cancer tends to occur more often in women than men.
- Inheriting certain genetic syndromes: There are some genetic syndromes that will increase your risk for developing thyroid cancer, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia, familial medullary thyroid cancer, and familial adenomatous polyposis. There are tests available that can check for the genes responsible for these inherited conditions.
- Being exposed to high levels of radiation: Radiation exposure increases your risk for any type of cancer. Some examples of exposure include being around nuclear power plants, weapons testing, or receiving radiation treatment to your head or neck.
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