Thyroid Cancer Can Go Undetected for a Long Time

Some people may be living with thyroid cancer and not know it. This is because symptoms of thyroid cancer are not unique or distinctive. In other words, thyroid cancer symptoms can mimic those of less severe illnesses and diseases. This makes early detection and screening essential, especially for patients with more telling symptoms (like lumps in the neck) or a family history of the disease.

The endocrinology department at Bergen Medical Associates can help patients in northern New Jersey with early detection of thyroid cancer. We offer medical care and treatment for many conditions. The team includes over 50 board-certified physicians, nurses, and trained staff, including endocrinologists. Here, we discuss how thyroid cancer can be detected, along with the best treatment and prevention strategies.

Doctor examining patient’s throat in office

What Is Thyroid Cancer?

Thyroid cancer begins in the thyroid, an essential gland in the front of the neck. The thyroid produces body-regulating hormones that aid in maintaining body temperature, metabolism, blood pressure, and heart rate. Thyroid glands typically sit right below the thyroid cartilage – also called the Adam’s apple. Most patients cannot feel or see the thyroid glands in their necks.

The thyroid gland produces two types of cells. Follicular cells, which create thyroid hormones from iodine in the blood, manage a patient’s metabolism. Some bodies may produce too many or too few follicular cells, leading to varying symptoms. The thyroid also produces C-cells, which make calcitonin and help the body manage how to use calcium.

When cancer begins growing in the thyroid, these cells become altered or changed, causing them to overpopulate and form a tumor. Thyroid cancer tumors can either be cancerous or noncancerous.

How Long Can You Have Thyroid Cancer Without Knowing?

One of the most notable reasons thyroid cancer can be challenging to detect is because symptoms are general. This means symptoms can mimic those of other diseases and illnesses, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. However, the most common symptom of thyroid cancer is feeling a lump in the neck, called a thyroid nodule. While most thyroid nodules are noncancerous, some can turn cancerous.

Other common symptoms of thyroid cancer include:

  • Persistent cough not stemming from a cold
  • Lump in the front of the throat (near the Adam’s apple)
  • Throat or neck pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble with breathing
  • Swollen neck glands
  • Difficulty swallowing

Many patients with thyroid cancer do not feel symptoms of the disease, meaning they can have thyroid cancer for a long time without knowing. Some patients only become diagnosed after routine imaging exams for other conditions. If a patient displays symptoms of thyroid cancer, it does not always mean cancer is present. Some symptoms may indicate other issues with the thyroid or elsewhere.

If a patient’s thyroid cancer spreads to other body areas, they may experience other symptoms. These include:

  • Unintended weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting/nausea
  • Appetite loss

How Is Thyroid Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

Endocrinologists perform many diagnostic tests to determine whether a patient has thyroid cancer, such as imaging tests (like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans), blood tests, or biopsy. When a patient is diagnosed with thyroid cancer, they typically will work with a multidisciplinary team. A patient’s team includes endocrinologists, surgeons, oncologists, and other medical staff. This ensures each patient gets the treatment and expertise needed at every stage.

The type of treatment a patient receives depends on certain factors, like the stage and type of thyroid cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health. A patient’s medical team will discuss their options to find one that is most comfortable for patients.

The treatments for thyroid cancer include:


The most common treatment for thyroid cancer is surgery, as it provides a chance for surgeons to remove the tumor entirely. Surgeons may perform a thyroidectomy, which removes the entire thyroid gland. They may also conduct a lobectomy, which removes only part of a patient’s thyroid gland.

If surgeons notice that cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, surgeons may also remove them. Surgeons may require that patients undergo further treatment, like radiation therapy or hormone therapy, to eliminate lingering cancer cells.

Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy involves injecting specialized hormones into the body to deliver messages and directions. These hormones tell the body to stop making the hormone, prevent it from attaching to cancerous cells, and change the makeup of the hormone so it stops working. This helps slow the spread of thyroid cancer.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses strong, high-energy beams to shrink and kill tumors within the body. The goal is to deliver powerful energy directly to the tumor site. Patients can undergo external radiation therapy, where energy comes from a machine. Or, they can have internal radiation therapy, where surgeons insert a radioactive tool near the tumor to kill it directly.


Chemotherapy delivers cancer-fighting medications through oral medications or intravenously. These medications are designed to stop the growth of tumors and kill off cancerous cells. Many patients diagnosed with thyroid cancer rarely require chemotherapy. Other treatments can be efficient in treating the condition.

When seeking treatment, patients should rely on the help of a specialist for answers and information about their effective treatment options. Endocrinologists have specialized knowledge of the endocrine system and its glands, meaning they know how to treat diseases and conditions affecting the thyroid. Receiving treatment from an endocrinology specialist provides peace of mind that patients are receiving personalized, knowledgeable thyroid cancer treatment.

What Do I Do to Prevent Thyroid Cancer?

Thyroid cancer can arise for many reasons. However, physicians are unsure of what exactly causes the disease to develop. Some believe that genetics and a low-iodine diet can potentially contribute to a thyroid cancer diagnosis. Excessive radiation exposure can also cause thyroid cancer. Other possible causes of thyroid cancer include:

  • Obesity
  • Enlarged thyroid (called goiter)
  • Certain gene changes that lead to endocrine diseases
  • Family medical history of thyroid cancer or thyroid disease
  • Thyroid gland inflammation (called thyroiditis)

While there is no way to avoid thyroid cancer, understanding the possible cause of a patient’s cancer can help find the best treatments. The most surefire way to combat thyroid cancer is by scheduling regular, early screenings. This is especially true if a patient notices swelling or lumps in the neck or has a family history of thyroid cancer.

For patients with a family history, screenings include genetic tests, which test for the presence of certain genes that can contribute to a later thyroid cancer diagnosis. Additionally, patients may undergo blood tests or imaging exams, such as thyroid ultrasounds. Early detection and screening are essential to finding successful treatment. The earlier a patient is diagnosed, the sooner they can receive treatment.

Find Comprehensive Thyroid Care at Bergen Medical Associates

Bergen Medical Associates provides a wide range of specialties under one roof, offering convenient, complete, and well-rounded medical care for patients at locations throughout northern New Jersey. All Bergen Medical Associates doctors are board-certified, and patients can access many types of care, such as physiatry and interventional pain management. To learn more about how long you can have thyroid cancer without knowing, contact us today.

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