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Pediatric Thyroid Cancer

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Summary

Thyroid cancer is cancer of the thyroid gland, an organ at the base of the neck that produces hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and weight.

Types

There are four types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary: This is the most common type in the U.S., and most children with papillary thyroid cancer can be cured if it is diagnosed early.
  • Follicular: This is the second most common type in the U.S., and most children with follicular thyroid cancer can be treated successfully if it is diagnosed early.
  • Medullary: A rare type of thyroid cancer, medullary cancer tends to be more aggressive. It can be easier to control if it’s found and treated before it spreads to other parts of the body.
  • Anaplastic: The rarest type of thyroid cancer, these cells tend to grow and spread very quickly. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is very hard to control, but occurs almost exclusively in adults.

Causes

The exact cause of thyroid cancer is unknown. As with all types of cancers, it is characterized by the growth of abnormal cells that often multiply quickly, forming what is known as a tumor.

Risk Factors

  • Personal diagnosis of MEN
  • A family history of goiter or thyroid cancer
  • Previous radiation exposure to the head and neck
  • Treatment for previous childhood cancer, particularly Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Symptoms

Many children with thyroid cancer do not have any symptoms until their disease has progressed. Thyroid cancer symptoms may include:

  • Neck mass / swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Throat pain
  • Hoarseness

Diagnosis

There are several methods for diagnosing thyroid cancer. Your child’s doctor may use a combination of these methods:

  • History and physical exam
  • Blood tests to check thyroid hormone levels (thyroid stimulating hormone and calcitonin)
  • Genetic testing
  • Urine test
  • Ultrasound (a noninvasive test that uses sound waves to take pictures of the thyroid)
  • Fine needle biopsy (removal of a small amount of thyroid tissue using a thin needle; the tissue is later examined under a microscope.)

Treatment

The most common treatment for thyroid cancer is surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland. Additional treatments may include:

  • Thyroid hormone therapy: an oral medication taken after surgery to replace the hormones that your child’s body will no longer be able to produce
  • Radioactive iodine: an oral medication that destroys any remaining thyroid tissue after surgery
  • External radiation therapy: radiation to the neck or other tissues where the cancer may have spread
  • Chemotherapy: an oral or intravenous (IV) medication that is used to kill cancer cells

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