Raising Awareness About Thyroid Cancer

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    Tamara Weiss, MD, MS, Vice Chairman for Clinical Services in the Department of Radiation Oncology, talks about what it is and how to treat it, which although occurring in only about 37,000 people a year, has doubled in the past 10 years.

    What is thyroid cancer?

    Thyroid cancer is a cancerous growth in the thyroid gland, which is located at the base of the neck, just below the Adam's apple. The thyroid’s function is to produce hormones that regulate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and weight. Thyroid cancer occurs in people of all age ranges, but it tends to be more common in women.

    Symptoms include difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, cough, a choking sensation, pain in the neck and throat area, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, or a noticeable lump or bump in the neck. A simple self-test is to feel along the neck for any lumps or bumps, then feel again while swallowing to see if there are any changes. If so, see your physician for additional evaluation.

    Although there is little an individual can do except avoid exposure to radiation, the good news is that prognosis is generally good. Five-year survival rates can be as high as 90 to 95 percent.

    Once diagnosed, what are the treatment options?

    Typically, most patients will need surgery to remove the thyroid gland. At Stony Brook, this is a minimally invasive procedure. After surgery, patients take a thyroid replacement hormone, which is something they will have to do for the rest of the their lives. For the last two and a half years, the medication Thyrogen® has become the standard preparation method for treatment with radioactive iodine. It has been in use for many years in preparation for follow up thyroid carcinoma scans. It brings the major benefit of allowing patients to remain on the medication year-round. In the past, patients would have to stop taking their thyroid medication for several weeks a year in order to undergo testing and ensure the most accurate results; this, in turn, could trigger hypothyroidism, which in some people can cause debilitating symptoms.

    Optimal treatment may also entail radioiodine, an oral regimen designed to attack any remaining thyroid tissue that could not be surgically removed.  Stony Brook is the only medical center in Suffolk County to offer this treatment. During treatment, patients need to be in isolation for five to seven days as not to expose others to the radioactive component. Fortunately, thanks to improvements in dosage and other factors, most patients can now undergo this treatment at home. In addition, as part of Stony Brook’s comprehensive approach, it offers nutrition counseling for patients, who in preparation for treatment must follow a low-iodine diet for several weeks.

    Other treatments include targeted therapies that introduce anti-growth factors into the system. Called systemic therapies, they are administered by medical oncologists. Stony Brook also makes clinical trials available to eligible patients.

    For information about thyroid cancer or to make an appointment, call HealthConnect® at (631) 444-4000.

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