Why Every Woman Should Check her Neck

Don't forget to check your neck!Who know how when you go to the doctor one of the first things he or she does is put their hands under your chin and around the surface of your neck? Though you may have thought the doctor was looking for sign of a common cold or flu, in actuality swollen glands may lead to something much more complicated. Your doctor may be looking for symptoms of thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer is a quiet cancer, in that we do not hear about it often in the media. Though it can strike anyone at any age, three in four of those newly diagnosed are women. And for reasons that are still unknown, the incidence of thyroid cancer in women is rising faster than any other cancer in the United States. In 2013 a record of approximately 60,220 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer jumped onto my radar when I had not one or two, but three friends who were diagnosed with this cancer while pregnant or just after delivering their babies. It turns out that differentiated thyroid cancer (DTC) is the second most common cancer in pregnancy. Doctors think that it may be a result of more thyroid gland secretion during early pregnancy.

As you can imagine, the management of any cancer during pregnancy is difficult because it presents challenges for both mom and baby. The same goes for treatment while breastfeeding. Fortunately, all three of my friends were able to receive treatment and are fine today.  Since recurrences can occur in up to 30% of thyroid cancer patients, each of my friends is in for a lifetime of regular follow-up exams.

The other reason why thyroid cancer is quiet is that it typically does not cause glaring symptoms. As it progresses there may be some warning signs, but these are also symptoms of other common illnesses. They include:

  –  swollen lymph node(s) in your neck, or a lump that can be felt through the skin on your neck
  –  difficulty speaking, changes to your voice, or increasing hoarseness
  –  difficulty swallowing, or pain in the throat or neck

Thyroid cancer is often discovered by patients themselves. However, if you (or your doctor) do find a thyroid nodule during a neck check, it does not mean that you should panic or that you definitely have thyroid cancer. In fact, most thyroid nodules are benign. It does mean, though, that you should have more testing done to rule out thyroid cancer.

There are several types of thyroid cancer, and only one, known as anaplastic thyroid carcinoma is an aggressive type of cancer. Fortunately, anaplastic thyroid carcinoma is also the least common type accounting for just 1—2% of all thyroid cancers.

Once thyroid cancer is detected and a course of treatment is determined, the 30 year survival rates are usually more than 90%. In most cases, patients undergo surgery to remove most of the thyroid gland, and many are treated with thyroid hormone replacement therapy to normalize thyroid levels. Other treatments may include: radioactive iodine treatment, radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Some of the other factors associated with thyroid cancer include a family history, being female, being over 40 (although thyroid cancer can strike all age groups), and prior exposure of the thyroid gland to radiation. The type of radiation used in diagnostic x-rays (such as the ones at the dentist’s office or CT scans) is not known to be connected with thyroid cancer.

As we move into October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we will be reminded to do regular self-exams for our breasts. Please, do yourself a favor and make a neck check part of your regular self-exams too.


This post was written on behalf of Thyroid Cancer Awareness month. Please note that this post is intended to share information and ideas, as well as to create conversation. Please consult a medical professional before making changes to your lifestyle.

Sources: THYCA.org (1), THYCA.org (2), CheckYourNeck.com, National Institutes of Health


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