Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

There are three main types of thyroid cancer: differentiated thyroid cancer, anaplastic thyroid cancer, and medullary thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer may appear as thyroid nodules, but thyroid cancer symptoms may or may not be noticeable to the patient at first. Most nodules - at least 90% - are small and non-cancerous, but some can be cancerous, so it is important to go to your doctor to have nodules on thyroid evaluated early. A thyroid nodule may feel like a painful lump in the neck or a lump in the throat when swallowing. This neck lump can be hard and may be accompanied by a swollen neck or some degree of swelling in the neck.

An enlarged thyroid gland, sometimes called a goiter or swollen thyroid gland, can also appear as a lump in the neck and may be caused by a thyroid cyst, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland) or hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland). However, there is a chance that the thyroid symptoms may be caused by a cancerous nodule on the thyroid, so you should seek medical advice immediately if you have these neck symptoms.  

Differentiated thyroid cancer is the most common type of thyroid cancer - about 19 in every 20 people with thyroid cancer have this type. This cancer may spread to the cervical lymph nodes, the lungs and bones. The staging for differentiated thyroid cancers depends on age, with people under 45 years old usually doing better. 

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is rare – less than 1% of people with thyroid cancer have this type. This sort of thyroid cancer usually appears as a fast-growing lump on the neck, and patients often develop a hoarse voice and have difficulty swallowing and breathing. This thyroid cancer can be aggressive and spread to the lungs, the bones and the brain. 

Medullary thyroid cancer is also uncommon – only 1–2% of people with thyroid cancer have this type. It usually appears as a single thyroid nodule in patients between 30 and 70 years old. This type of cancer often spreads to the cervical lymph nodes, so patients will sometimes first notice a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck. Other symptoms such as flushing and diarrhoea can indicate that the thyroid cancer has spread.
Signs and symptoms of thyroid problems can be investigated with a thyroid test to determine their exact cause. This may involve imaging techniques such as a full body scan, and a fine needle aspiration biopsy can confirm the diagnosis if thyroid cancer is suspected.