Dancing-with-the-Stars co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet recently underwent surgery for thyroid cancer, so we were happy to hear this week that the procedure was a success.
Although no one wants a diagnosis of cancer, the good news is that thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable types, says John Yim, MD, professor of surgery at City of Hope National Medical Center. More and more people around the world are being diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, although no one is sure why.
But the five-year-survival rate for early papillary cancer, the most common type of thyroid cancer, is about 100%, according to the American Cancer Society. A person with cancer who lives for five years without a recurrence of their condition is usually considered cured.
Here are some facts you should know about thyroid cancer:
1. Many thyroid cancers are found by accident. For instance, they might show up on an ultrasound of the carotid artery in the neck, says Dr. Yim. Or a primary-care physician might unsuspectingly come across a lump in the neck during a regular check-up, as happened with Burke-Charvet.
2. Once diagnosed, almost all thyroid cancers are treated surgically. That means removing the whole thyroid gland.
3. After surgery, patients receive radioactive iodine to kill off any remaining cancerous cells, says Dr. Yim. Because thyroid tissue is virtually the only tissue in the body that absorbs iodine, radioactive iodine will easily hone in on any remaining thyroid tissue and destroy it.
4. A rise in ultrasound screening which can pick up very small cancers is probably one reason diagnoses are on the rise, says Dr. Yim, but larger cancers are being detected as well.
5. Being a woman is a risk factor for thyroid cancer, which occurs about three times as often in women than in men in the U.S.
6. Women are also more likely to develop thyroid cancer in their 40s or 50s (Burke-Charvet is 41) while men are more likely to develop it in their 60s or 70s.
7. Exposure to radiation is another major risk factor. Survivors of the Chernobyl catastrophe in the former Soviet Union, especially children and adolescents, had a 5-6 fold increased risk of thyroid cancer after the accident. Children in the U.S. who received radiation to treat acne or enlarged tonsils, a common practice before the 1960s, are also at higher risk. Fortunately, these types of treatments are no longer performed. Another source of radiation exposure comes from aboveground nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Older Americans can determine their possible risk from this exposure at the National Cancer Institute.
8. Today, radiation exposure could come from CT scans or high-dose radiation to treat lymphoma or even from radon gas, which is why it’s so important to test for radon. Mammograms, on the other hand, aren’t likely to pose any danger, nor are airport scanners, Yim adds.
For most people, though, “we don’t know clinically why they develop thyroid cancer,” says Dr. Steven I. Sherman chair of endocrine neoplasia and hormonal disorders at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Like other thyroid-cancer survivors who have undergone surgery, Burke-Charvet will have to take thyroid hormone for the rest of her life.
“One of the most important functions of the thyroid gland is to produce thyroid hormone and you need it for your metabolism,” explains Dr. Yim. “You’ll essentially die a slow death over years if you don’t take thyroid hormone.”
But natural hormone is easily replaceable with a daily pill.
Burke-Charvet has already dodged any possible complications of surgery, such as losing her voice due to damage to the nerves controlling the vocal cords, which are located perilously close to the thyroid.
“Surgery went well & I can talk,” she tweeted. “Losing my voice was my biggest fear.”
While Burke-Charvet’s prognosis appears excellent, this is not always the case.
“Common papillary thyroid cancer is one that is considered treatable and most patients live long enough to die of something else, but it can be a fatal disease,” Dr. Sherman warned.
People who are older when they are diagnosed with thyroid cancer are more likely to die of the disease. And, as with other cancers, larger cancers and those that have invaded the lymph nodes are more likely to be fatal.