It makes sense that the number-one symptom of thyroid cancer is a lump in the neck, because that’s where this butterfly-shaped gland is located (at the base of your neck, in the front). But the symptoms of thyroid cancer can be varied, and aren’t limited to that area.
The thyroid “secretes a hormone that controls your body’s metabolism,” explains William Rassman, MD, a doctor and CEO based in Los Angeles, California. “These hormones directly impact breathing, heart rate, your nervous system, muscle strength, a woman’s menstrual cycle, your body temperature, cholesterol levels, and many other functions.”
“Every year, about 12,000 men and 33,000 women get thyroid cancer, and about 950 men and 1,100 women die from the disease,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Thyroid cancer can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages, as it may not present with any symptoms, but “If it’s caught early, thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer,” says WebMD.
Read on to find out about the easy-to-miss signs of thyroid cancer you should look out for—and what to do if you notice them.
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You may not realize that there’s swelling in your neck area by simply looking in the mirror, but “a feeling that close-fitting shirt collars are becoming too tight” can be a red flag, says the Mayo Clinic.
Intense emotions, drugs and alcohol, and certain conditions like menopause can all potentially cause flushing in the face, MedlinePlus advises. But a rare form of thyroid cancer, called medullary thyroid cancer, can also be responsible for facial flushing.
“Medullary thyroid cancer commonly advances from the thyroid into the lymph nodes,” says Healthline, also pointing out that “tumors or other abnormal growths can overproduce hormones, triggering flushing. Undiagnosed medullary thyroid cancer can spread into other neck tissues and eventually reach the liver, lungs, bone, and brain,” warns the site.
Another sign of medullary thyroid cancer is weight-related. “Unusual weight loss is a symptom of advanced medullary thyroid cancer that has spread beyond the thyroid into other organs,” Healthline says. This is one of this type of cancer’s more uncommon symptoms, which may lso include diarrhea, lethargy, and bone pain.
Because people may associate cancer symptoms with a single lump, they might not realize that swollen lymph nodes in the neck can also be a sign of thyroid cancer.
“Swollen lymph nodes usually occur as a result of infection from bacteria or viruses,” the Mayo Clinic says. However, swollen lymph nodes in the neck can be a symptom of thyroid cancer as well as other serious conditions.
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We’re all familiar with the feeling of having a hoarse voice after a cold (or a long night of karaoke). But if that raspy feeing doesn’t go away, it could be a sign of thyroid cancer.
Other voice changes that can occur with the disease are a “low voice, roughness, reduced range, and vocal fatigue,” according to a Sept. 2019 article published in the Eurasian Journal of Medicine, which notes that “trembling voice, reduced intensity of voice, and audible breathing” can also signal the disease.
Because of the specific location of the thyroid, which is right on top of the windpipe (trachea), cancer can cause pressure there as it grows, explains EndocrineWeb. This pressure may result in difficulty breathing or trouble swallowing.
Seemingly endless coughing can be a frequent symptom of the common cold or a bronchial infection, among other things. This is especially true in the winter months, when illnesses such as RSV peak.
“You should see your doctor if you have a cough that’s unrelated to a cold or one that doesn’t go away,” warns Healthline. “Thyroid cancer can sometimes cause a persistent cough.”
If you experience any of the above symptoms, contact your healthcare provider to get checked out.