The thyroid gland, part of the endocrine system, is responsible mainly for regulating the body's metabolism, or how cells convert food into energy. But the hormones it secretes affect much more than how quickly you digest lunch. A malfunctioning thyroid can impact various facets of health and cause a variety of symptoms, from fatigue to erectile dysfunction (ED) and weight fluctuations to infertility.
That's why it's important to raise thyroid awareness, especially as it relates to thyroid disease.
About 20 million people in the United States have some form of thyroid disease, according to the American Thyroid Association. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to be affected. Most sufferers have thyroid nodules, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) or an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
Autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto's disease and Grave's disease cause most instances of hypo- and hyperthyroidism and typically occur in people with a family history of the disease. Nodules may result from nutritional deficiencies, normal tissue overgrowth, fluid-filled cysts, inflammation or tumors, according to Cedars-Sinai, a healthcare provider based in Los Angeles.
Many tumorous nodules are benign, but about 2 or 3 in 20 are cancerous, according to the American Cancer Society, and between 1 percent and 2 percent of people develop thyroid cancer at some point in their lives. Each year, about 12,500 males and 31,200 females are diagnosed, and 970 men and 1,150 women die of the disease, according to ACS estimates. It's one of the five most common carcinomas among people ages 15 to 39, states the Pacific Neuroscience Institute (PNI).
But it isn't all bad news. The five-year survival rate for papillary thyroid cancer, the most common type, is 99 percent. And for regional follicular cancer and regional medullary cancers, the five-year survival rates are 98 percent and 90 percent, respectively.
As with most cancers, early detection can greatly improve a patient's prognosis. Knowing the signs—including an unusual swelling in the neck, persistent cough or hoarseness—can help. So, too, can routine medical care. Many thyroid conditions are identified when a patient seeks help for a different condition.
"Thyroid cancer is, in most cases, very treatable. In fact, some small thyroid cancers are treated with close observation, or 'active surveillance' in the common parlance," said Evan Walgama, M.D., a board-certified otolaryngologist at the Pacific Eye, Ear & Skull Base Center at PNI in Santa Monica, California.
PNI specializes in neurological and cranial disorders, minimally invasive surgical and interventional techniques, and novel targeted therapies. Walgama's particular expertise is treating patients with tumors in the head and neck, including the thyroid.
In support of Thyroid Awareness Month in January, Giddy conducted an email interview with Walgama, who answered a few questions about thyroid cancer and how it's treated.