Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

By Dr. Devendra Chaukar in Nanavati Max Institute of Cancer Care

Apr 24 , 2023 | 4 min read

What is Thyroid Cancer?

Thyroid cancer is a cancer of the thyroid gland, i.e. the growth of abnormal cells in an uncontrolled manner in the gland.

The thyroid gland is an endocrine gland located in the front of the neck. It is responsible for making thyroid hormones: t3 or triiodothyronine and t4 or thyroxine, both of which are responsible for metabolism, movement, and mentation.

There are four main types of thyroid cancer:

  1. Papillary: This is the most common type of thyroid cancer.
  2. Follicular: This is the second most frequent form of thyroid cancer. Together, papillary and follicular cancer account for more than 95% of thyroid cancer cases.
  3. Medullary and (4) Anaplastic: These are two less common forms of thyroid cancer. All have similar signs and thyroid cancer symptoms but the doctor must check which type of thyroid cancer it is to decide on the treatment.

Thyroid Cancer Warning Signs

Most people probably don’t notice anything at the beginning. It becomes more noticeable as cancer grows, with symptoms such as swelling in the neck, voice changes, and difficulty swallowing.

Many of these symptoms can also be caused by non-cancerous diseases or other neck diseases. This is why one must consult a doctor immediately if they notice any of these thyroid cancer symptoms:

  • A lump or swelling in the neck: A lump, nodule, or swelling near the base of the neck could signal thyroid cancer. However, not all lumps are cancerous. Only a small percentage of lumps are cancerous tumours. So it's important to have the doctor examine the lump before jumping to conclusions.
  • Trouble swallowing: Swallowing becomes difficult when a tumour on the back of the thyroid presses on the oesophagus. Some people feel constriction in their throat, making it hard for them to eat food.
  • Hoarseness in voice: Occasional temporary voice shifts are usually not caused for concern. However, if one's voice becomes unusually harsh or breathy for no obvious reason and remains so, a tumour may be causing damage to vocal cords.
  • Coughing or shortness of breath: In rare situations, a tumour grows to the size of the oesophagus, causing shortness of breath or a chronic cough. This could indicate that one has a more aggressive form of thyroid cancer that has begun to infect other parts nearby.

Causes of Thyroid Cancer

Most people develop thyroid cancer for no reason. However, some factors can increase the chances of developing it:

  1. Inherent genetic syndrome: Thyroid cancer develops when cells in the thyroid undergo DNA changes.
  2. Radiation exposure: If radiation treatment is exposed to the head or neck area.
  3. Iodine deficiency: If one doesn't receive enough of it in their diet, they may be more likely to develop thyroid cancer.

What to do if one notices thyroid cancer symptoms

When a person first experiences symptoms they must see a doctor and have them diagnose the real problem.

Thyroid Cancer Diagnosis

Doctors may recommend the following tests to diagnose thyroid cancer:

  1. Blood tests
  2. Physical examination of the neck
  3. Ultrasound examination of the neck
  4. Other imaging tests, such as CT and MRI

Preparing for Thyroid Cancer Treatment

If cancer is discovered, an essential element of cancer care and treatment is managing its symptoms. This is referred to as “palliative care” or “supporting care.” Patients should take help from palliative care experts to recover earlier.

To make the treatment more effective, patients should limit their intake of iodine for one or two weeks before the procedure. Additionally, they are advised to:

  1. Avoid all seafood
  2. Limit intake of dairy products
  3. Avoid cough treatments that include iodine.
  4. Consume plenty of fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, pasta, and rice.


It should be followed immediately after the diagnosis and continues throughout treatment. Make an appointment with the doctor to discuss thyroid cancer symptoms, particularly any new or changing symptoms.

Thyroid Cancer Treatment

Thyroid cancer is treated with one or more therapies. The most frequent types of thyroid cancer therapies are:

  1. Surgery
  2. Hormone treatment
  3. Radioactive iodine (radioiodine) therapy
  4. External-beam radiation therapy
  5. Chemotherapy
  6. Targeted therapy


The stage of thyroid cancer, and the patient's preference all influence which treatment option would be recommended by the doctor. It is advised to take the time to read about all the treatment options available and ask questions to understand them in depth.

Signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer recurrence

Up to 30% of thyroid cancer patients may experience cancer recurrence. An estimated 80% of these people suffer thyroid cancer recurrence only in the neck area. The remaining 20% of people with recurrent cancer develop distant metastases, which are tumours that form in other parts of the body.

Thyroid cancer recurrence can cause:

  1. Neck swelling or a lump in the neck
  2. Neck pain, which may start in the front of the neck and later spread to the ears
  3. Breathing or swallowing difficulties
  4. Changes in voice or hoarseness
  5. Cough that is not caused by a cold


An early hint of thyroid cancer symptoms may go unnoticeable, thus regular tests and follow-up sessions at the doctor's office even 3-6 months are highly recommended. A test may involve a physical exam, blood tests, or imaging tests, that find a trace of cancer recurrence and other related health issues that come with it.

When to See the Doctor

If people experience pain in their neck or throat or develop enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, it is time to see the doctor.

Normal thyroid blood tests do not rule out the possibility of thyroid cancer. The actual diagnosis of thyroid cancer is done with a biopsy, in which cells from the affected area are extracted and need to be examined in the lab.


There are numerous types of thyroid cancer. People need to watch out for thyroid cancer symptoms. The good news is that once diagnosed, most thyroid cancers are curable. Treatment outcomes vary, but they are generally good. A surgeon may remove all or part of the thyroid gland and use targeted medicines to kill any leftover cancer cells. Following surgery, one may still need to see a doctor frequently to monitor for any signs of a recurrence.