A person can have thyroid cancer for months or years without experiencing any symptoms. Symptoms may not develop until the cancer advances.

The thyroid is a gland at the base of the throat that sends out hormones to control blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism, and body temperature.

Thyroid cancers develop when cells in the thyroid become abnormal and grow uncontrollably or do not die at the correct point in their life cycle.

Read on to learn about how long it can take for symptoms of thyroid cancer to develop. This article also looks at its early symptoms, how doctors diagnose it, and more.

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It can take months or years for symptoms of thyroid cancer to develop. Thyroid cancer may not cause any symptoms in its early stages, which can mean a person can have thyroid cancer for a long time without knowing it is there.

It is possible to find thyroid cancer early. A person may develop a noticeable lump in the neck before they have any other symptoms, which may lead a doctor to suspect thyroid cancer.

It is also possible to detect thyroid cancer early during a routine examination or through imaging for another health condition.

If a person has concerns about thyroid cancer, even if they do not currently have any noticeable symptoms, it is best to contact a doctor for advice.

Neck lumps and nodules are the most common early signs of thyroid cancer. These can sometimes grow quickly.

However, thyroid cancer may not cause early symptoms at all.

Thyroid cancer may cause more noticeable symptoms as the condition advances.

These can include:

Learn more about the symptoms of thyroid cancer.

A person should contact a doctor upon noticing a lump at the front of their neck.

Other conditions can cause this, such as an overactive or underactive thyroid gland, so it is important to receive an accurate diagnosis.

Several tests can help a doctor confirm thyroid cancer, including the following:

  • Physical exam and health history: The doctor examines the body, looking for signs, such as lumps or swelling, and gathers information about a person’s health history.
  • Laryngoscopy: The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube to examine the voice box and assess the movement of the vocal cords.
  • Blood hormone studies: The medical team analyzes blood samples to measure hormone levels, including thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), calcitonin, and antithyroid antibodies.
  • Fine-needle aspiration biopsy: Doctors remove thyroid tissue with a thin needle. They then send the tissue for lab analysis to identify abnormal cells.
  • Surgical biopsy: A surgeon may remove part or all of the thyroid and send the tissue to a lab for analysis.
  • Blood chemistry studies: The medical team checks a blood sample to identify abnormal levels of substances, such as calcium.
  • Ultrasound: The medical team uses high energy sound waves to create an image of tissues inside the neck. This helps them work out the size and nature of thyroid nodules and guide the fine-needle aspiration biopsy.
  • CT scan: The medical team produces detailed pictures of body areas, such as the neck, from various angles using a computer linked to an X-ray machine.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about thyroid cancer.

What happens if thyroid cancer is left untreated?

Not every person with thyroid cancer needs treatment right away. People with a type called papillary thyroid cancer who have tumors measuring 1 centimeter (cm) or less may undergo a process called active surveillance rather than receiving surgery or treatment. This involves monitoring the tumor without removing it.

However, sometimes, treatment may be necessary to prevent the cancer from advancing. A doctor can provide a person with more accurate information about their treatment plan based on their individual circumstances.

How does thyroid cancer make you feel?

Thyroid cancer may cause hoarseness, swallowing difficulties, and an ongoing sore throat. However, it often does not cause symptoms at all, particularly in its early stages.

How fast does thyroid cancer grow?

Different types of thyroid cancer grow at different rates. One 2019 study involving 273 people with papillary thyroid cancer found that 72% of the tumors took 5 or more years to double in size.

How long can a person live with thyroid cancer?

Most types of thyroid cancer have very good survival rates, though this also depends on the type of thyroid cancer and how far it spreads from the thyroid.

The 5-year survival rate gives an estimated percentage of people who are still alive 5 years after diagnosis compared with those who do not have thyroid cancer.

The overall relative survival rates for the different types are:

A relative survival rate helps give an idea of how long a person with a particular condition will live after receiving a diagnosis compared with those without the condition.

For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate is 70%, it means that a person with the condition is 70% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

It is important to remember that these figures are estimates. A person can consult a healthcare professional about how their condition is going to affect them.

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Thyroid cancer does not always cause symptoms. A person may have it for months or years before a doctor finds it during a routine examination or a scan.

One of the first symptoms of thyroid cancer is a lump in the neck. As the condition progresses, it may cause a sore throat, a hoarse voice, and neck pain.

It is important to contact a doctor if a person notices a neck lump. The doctor can order tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible causes.