Parathyroid cancer is a very rare type of cancer that starts in the parathyroid gland. It can cause hyperparathyroidism, which can result in high calcium levels in the blood. The most common treatment is surgically removing the parathyroid gland.

The parathyroid glands make parathyroid hormone (PTH), which helps the body regulate and store calcium. When someone has parathyroid cancer, they may produce excess levels of PTH. This can cause high calcium levels in the blood, which doctors call hypercalcemia. High calcium levels can cause many symptoms of the cancer, but there are also other symptoms.

Doctors do not know the causes or prevention strategies of parathyroid cancer, but certain inheritable conditions may be risk factors. Treatment can include surgery and therapies such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Treatment should also target hypercalcemia, which can be more life threatening than the cancer itself.

This article will discuss parathyroid cancer and its associated symptoms, causes, treatments, and outlook.

Parathyroid cancerShare on Pinterest
StefaNikolic/Getty Images

Parathyroid cancer, or carcinoma, is a rare type of cancer that starts in a parathyroid gland. While it is a possible cause of hyperparathyroidism, it occurs in less than 1% of cases of the condition.

In the United States, the estimated prevalence is 0.005%. Parathyroid cancer affects individuals of all sexes equally, and the average age of onset is 44–54 years old.

What is the parathyroid?

People typically have four parathyroid glands, which develop near the thyroid.

The parathyroid glands make PTH, which helps regulate and store calcium in the body. Sometimes, parathyroid glands can make too much PTH, which doctors refer to as hyperparathyroidism.

Learn more about hyperparathyroidism.

When the parathyroid produces excessive PTH, it can cause hypercalcemia or calcium levels in the blood that are higher than typical. According to the National Cancer Institute, hypercalcemia can cause symptoms of parathyroid cancer, including:

  • feeling very tired
  • weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • appetite loss
  • weight loss without a known cause
  • much more thirst than usual
  • frequent urination
  • constipation
  • difficulty thinking clearly

Other parathyroid cancer symptoms can include:

  • pain in the abdomen, side, or back that stays
  • pain in the bones or a broken bone
  • a mass or lump in the neck
  • hoarseness or other voice changes
  • difficulty swallowing

Learn more about hypercalcemia.

A person can contact a doctor if they are experiencing any symptoms of parathyroid cancer.

A doctor can perform various tests to see if someone has parathyroid cancer or if other conditions are causing their symptoms. Finding and treating parathyroid cancer and hypercalcemia in their earlier stages may help improve a person’s outlook.

Parathyroid cancer seems to occur sporadically without a definite known cause.

However, some inherited conditions may be risk factors for developing this disease, including:

  • hyperparathyroidism-jaw tumor syndrome, which is a condition involving overactivity of the parathyroid glands
  • familial isolated hyperparathyroidism, which is the inherited form of hyperparathyroidism and also releases excessive parathyroid hormone
  • multiple endocrine neoplasia types 1 syndrome, which causes tumors to develop in more than two endocrine glands

Surgery is the most common treatment for parathyroid cancer.

Doctors usually carry out an en bloc resection, where they remove the affected parathyroid gland and potentially other areas, such as the lymph nodes. If they cannot remove the tumor completely, a doctor may use tumor debulking to take out as much as they can. Surgery may also target tumors that have spread to other parts of the body.

Other treatments in conjunction with surgery include:

A doctor may use these therapies in combination with surgery. Additionally, there is ongoing research into other treatment options.

Treating hypercalcemia is also important as it is a serious and potentially fatal condition. A doctor may treat the condition with intravenous fluids, which they administer through the vein, or certain medications.

Various factors can affect outlook, such as:

  • an individual’s age
  • health
  • the stage of cancer
  • whether the cancer has spread

A 2022 database study suggests that tumor removal offers the best outlook and found that the 5-year survival rate following surgery was 84%. The study found that independent risk factors for mortality included:

  • a larger tumor size
  • being male
  • being Caucasian
  • being over 40 years of age
  • issues with tumor differentiation
  • having cancer that has spread to other areas

There is a risk of the cancer returning after surgery.

The hypercalcemia that can result from hyperparathyroidism is also an important consideration for a person’s outlook because it can be more life threatening than the cancer itself. Patient mortality can often be due to hypercalcemia complications rather than issues due to the tumor.

This is currently no known way to prevent parathyroid cancer.

However, early detection and treatment can help prevent the disease from spreading and may improve someone’s outlook.

Parathyroid cancer is a rare type of cancer that starts in a parathyroid gland. The average age for onset is 44 to 54 years of age, and it does not discriminate by sex.

Surgical removal of the cancer is the most common treatment. Other treatment options include radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. It is important to also treat hypercalcemia due to its seriousness.

The outlook has many factors to consider, including age, cancer development, and whether the cancer has spread. Hypercalcemia can also be life threatening and affect a person’s outlook.