Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that particularly affects females. While its exact causes are largely unknown, multiple risk factors can contribute to its development, including genetic factors.

The thyroid gland is situated in the neck and plays a vital role in producing hormones that regulate essential bodily functions such as metabolism and heart rate. Thyroid cancer originates within the cells of the thyroid, and atypical cells begin to grow uncontrollably. Genetics do sometimes play a role, therefore, thyroid cancer can be hereditary.

In this article, we will explore the hereditary aspects of thyroid cancer. We will also discuss the disease’s causes, symptoms, types and treatment options and the importance of prevention.

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Thyroid cancer can be hereditary, but it is not solely down to genetics. Most cases are not due to direct inheritance from family members. Instead, genetic factors can increase an individual’s susceptibility to thyroid cancer.

A 2022 study identifies specific genes that, during mutation, can contribute to a higher risk of thyroid cancer. These genetic mutations pass down through generations, making it important for individuals with a family history of thyroid cancer to be vigilant about their health.

What is thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer occurs when atypical cells in the thyroid gland begin to grow uncontrollably. The thyroid gland in the neck is responsible for producing hormones that regulate metabolism. When these cells become cancerous, they form a tumor in the thyroid gland, which can sometimes spread to other parts of the body.

Learn more about thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer may not always present noticeable symptoms in its early stages. However, as the cancer progresses, some common symptoms may include:

  • A lump in the neck: The most common sign of thyroid cancer is the presence of a lump or nodule in the neck.
  • Hoarse voice: Thyroid cancer can affect the vocal cords, leading to hoarseness.
  • Difficulty swallowing: As the tumor grows, it can put pressure on the esophagus, causing difficulty in swallowing.
  • Sore throat: Some individuals may experience pain in the neck or throat.
  • Swollen lymph nodes: Swollen lymph nodes in the neck may be a sign of thyroid cancer that has spread.

If a person experiences any of these symptoms, it is important to consult a healthcare professional for an evaluation.

Learn more about the symptoms of thyroid cancer.

While doctors do not fully understand the exact causes of thyroid cancer, a combination of genetic conditions and risk factors can increase the likelihood of someone developing it.

Changes in a person’s DNA can cause thyroid cells to become cancerous. DNA is the chemical in cells that make up genes. DNA changes can cause cancer that turns on oncogenes, which are genes that can turn cancerous, or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Several risk factors may contribute to the development of thyroid cancer, including:

  • Genetic mutations: Certain genetic mutations, such as mutations in the RET and familial adenomatous polyposis genes, have links to an increase in the risk of thyroid cancer.
  • Producing too many hormones: Acromegaly is a rare condition where the body overproduces growth hormones. A 2019 study suggests there is a higher risk of thyroid cancer relating to acromegaly.
  • Iodine intake: A 2021 study suggests a link between iodine intake and an increase in the risk of thyroid cancer.
  • Gender: Thyroid cancer is more common in women than in men.
  • Age: The risk of thyroid cancer increases with age. Most cases occur in females aged 40–44 and in males aged 70–74.
  • Family history: A family history of thyroid cancer or certain hereditary conditions, such as familial medullary thyroid cancer, can increase the risk.
  • Obesity: Thyroid cancer is more likely to occur in people who have overweight or obesity.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Thyroid cancer has several types, including:

The type of thyroid cancer is crucial in determining the most suitable treatment approach.

Treatment options for thyroid cancer depend on the type and stage of the cancer, including:

  • Surgery: Surgical removal of the thyroid gland, or a thyroidectomy, is one of the primary treatments for some cases of thyroid cancer.
  • Radiation therapy: This technique typically follows surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
  • Radioactive iodine therapy: This treatment is for certain types of thyroid cancer to target any remaining thyroid tissue or cancer cells.
  • Targeted cancer drugs: Kinase inhibitors are proteins inside cells that usually relay signals, such as instructing the cell to grow. Blocking certain kinases can help treat some cancers.
  • Thyroid hormone replacement: Patients may require lifelong therapy to maintain body function after thyroid surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: This may be for advanced or aggressive cases of thyroid cancer.

Learn more about thyroid cancer treatment.

The prognosis for thyroid cancer is generally positive, with a high survival rate for some types. The outlook largely depends on the type and stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis. Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers tend to have very high survival rates, while anaplastic thyroid cancer has a lower likelihood of long-term survival.

Early detection and prompt treatment are crucial in achieving the best possible outcome. Regular follow-up appointments with healthcare professionals are essential for monitoring and managing thyroid cancer.

It is not always possible to prevent thyroid cancer. However, a person can significantly reduce the risk of developing the condition by avoiding risk factors and carrying out regular checks, including:

  • Avoiding radiation exposure: Minimize exposure to unnecessary radiation, especially during childhood.
  • Checking family history: If a person has a family history of thyroid cancer, consider genetic counseling and regular check-ups. Options can include routine surveillance or potentially removing the central lymph nodes, known as a prophylactic thyroidectomy.
  • Following a balanced diet: Consume a diet rich in nutrients to support thyroid health.
  • Undergoing self-exams: Regularly carry out checks on the neck for any lumps or abnormalities.
  • Checking thyroid health: Manage any underlying thyroid conditions and maintain regular check-ups with a healthcare professional.

While thyroid cancer can have hereditary components due to genetic mutations, it is not commonly an inherited condition. Rather, genetics play a role in increasing an individual’s susceptibility to the disease. Understanding the risk factors, types, symptoms, and available treatments for thyroid cancer is crucial for early detection and successful management.

Regular check-ups and a proactive approach to thyroid health can help individuals reduce their risk and ensure the best possible outcome if they receive a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.