Performing a self-neck check can help in the early detection of thyroid cancer — however, neck swelling does not always signify thyroid cancer. Sometimes, a medical examination is necessary.

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Most early cases of thyroid cancer are found when a person notices neck lumps or nodules and seeks help from a doctor. Also, self-awareness of the symptoms and any risk factors can be helpful.

The presence of visible neck swelling may trigger different emotions in people. The feeling could be fear or anxiety. Still, it is best to get it checked. Some neck swelling may require a visit to the ER. Swelling related to thyroid cancer is more likely to happen gradually over time.

If the doctor confirms that someone has thyroid cancer, it can be treated successfully, especially when found early.

This article discusses neck self-examination, including risk factors, signs, and symptoms of thyroid cancer.

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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A neck self-exam helps individuals to detect suspicious neck swelling and report to their doctors for early diagnosis. The person needs a hand-held mirror and a glass of water to perform a self-neck evaluation.

According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), here are steps for self-examination of the neck:

  1. Use one hand to hold a mirror and focus it on the lower front part of the neck, above the collarbone, and below the larynx (voice box) — which sits halfway down the neck. This is the thyroid gland area. It should not be confused with the Adam’s apple, which lies above the thyroid gland.
  2. The person should tilt the head back slightly to expose the neck.
  3. Take a drink of water and swallow.
  4. While swallowing, carefully observe in the mirror for any protrusions in the thyroid gland area.

If a person detects any lumps or bumps during the self-examination, they should consult a doctor. The reasons may not always be due to thyroid cancer. A doctor will likely conduct further clinical evaluation and tests to make a definitive diagnosis and plan the treatment course.

Learn more about the tests that doctors perform to diagnose thyroid cancer.

Doing a self-check may require noting down any new or new or worsening symptoms.

While signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer differ for each person, according to the American Cancer Society, a person can experience the following:

  • a rapidly growing lump in the neck
  • pain in the front of the neck
  • neck swelling
  • hoarseness or persistent voice changes
  • unexplained and persistent cough
  • swallowing difficulties
  • breathing difficulties

The presence of these symptoms is not specific or diagnostic of thyroid cancer. However, a person with these symptoms may benefit from further clinical examination for accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment.

Generally, there are no specific male and female differences in thyroid cancer symptoms and neck self-examination. However, some females may notice menstrual irregularities and unexplained fatigue.

Thyroid cancer is typically more common in females than males. A 2021 meta-analysis study on thyroid cancer incidence in the United States found that females are four times more likely to develop small papillary thyroid cancer in their lifetime than males.

The researchers speculate that sex differences in healthcare-seeking behaviors and utilization could be responsible for the significant differences in thyroid cancer detection in females compared to males. That said, scientists have yet to discover the exact reason to explain why the incidence rate differs among males and females.

There are personal and general risk factors for developing thyroid cancer. These risk factors are typically modifiable and non-modifiable. Modifiable risk factors are subject to change, while non-modifiable ones can not be altered.

Some risk factor for thyroid cancer includes the following:

  • Family history: Individuals with a family history of thyroid cancer among their parents or siblings are more likely to develop it.
  • Iodine levels: Individuals with a history of very low or high iodine blood levels are at risk of thyroid cancer.
  • Radiation exposure: A history of radiation exposure raises the risk of thyroid cancer.

A person with any of the above risk factors may benefit from consulting a doctor for clinical screening, using blood tests and thyroid ultrasound.

Other risk factors for thyroid cancer include:

  • Age: As people grow older, their risk of thyroid cancer increases.
  • Sex: Thyroid cancer affects females more than males
  • Obesity or overweight: The risk increases as a person’s body mass index (BMI) increases.

A doctor can explain the process of a self-neck check when a person is unsure what to look out for.

Early diagnosis and treatment play a crucial role in the clinical outcome of thyroid cancer cases. Contact a doctor if there is rapidly growing neck swelling and pain when swallowing. Also, when a person has multiple risk factors for thyroid cancer or any concerns about it, a doctor can recommend measures to manage modifiable risk factors.

Thyroid cancer occurs in both sexes, but it is more common in females. A self-neck examination helps individuals to independently detect if they have neck swelling and could help in the early detection and treatment of thyroid cancer.

People may also notice new symptoms, such as lumps or bumps with pain in swallowing, hoarse voice, and unexplained cough, which may suggest thyroid cancer in some cases. A person may also have risk factors, such as a family history of the condition, that make them more likely to develop thyroid cancer.

Therefore, individuals with these symptoms, lumps or bumps, and risk factors will benefit from contacting a doctor.