Finding a lump on your body can be very scary, but if the lump is on the front of your neck, near the base of your throat, there may not be much cause for alarm. The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck just above the collarbone. It wraps around your windpipe (trachea). It is extremely common for people to get abnormal lumps of growth (nodules) or cysts on the thyroid gland. Fortunately, 90% of thyroid nodules are benign, or non-cancerous.
The only way to know if a thyroid nodule is benign is to run some tests. If you find a lump on the front of your neck, it’s time to see an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist.
Testing a thyroid nodule starts with a physical exam followed by bloodwork and additional tests. These may include:
- Blood work to see if the thyroid is making too much or too little thyroid hormone.
- A Thyroid ultrasound which uses sound waves to take a picture of the thyroid.
- A fine needle biopsy that removes cells from the nodule so they can be taken to a lab and looked at under a microscope. This test is used to determine if cells in the nodule are cancerous or noncancerous.
- A nuclear medicine image to look at the nodule’s ability to take up iodine.
- DNA tests (molecular diagnostics) that look for cancer in thyroid cells.
There are different types of thyroid nodules and not all of them have known causes. Some are solid and some contain fluid. The latter are called thyroid cysts.
Some thyroid nodules make the thyroid produce too much thyroid hormone. This results in a condition known as hyperthyroidism. The symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- A rapid heartbeat
- Weight loss
- Light or missed menstrual periods
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increase appetite
- An enlarged thyroid (goiter)
A generalized enlargement of the thyroid, called a goiter, can occur when the thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone. This condition is called hypothyroidism. It can be caused by inadequate iodine intake. This is a common problem in the upper Midwest which lead to the production of iodized salt. Symptoms include:
- Weight gain
- Dry skin
- Frequent, heavy, menstrual periods
Sometimes thyroid nodules become so large that they cause a change in voice and/or trouble swallowing or breathing. When this happens, surgery may be necessary. A large nodule is not necessarily cancer.
Thyroid cancer is more common in people who:
- Are overweight
- Have a family history of thyroid cancer
- Have had radiation treatments to the head or neck.
- Have auto-immune thyroid disease
- Have certain genetic conditions
- Are women
- Are older
If your nodule does turn out to be cancerous, the likelihood of success when treating it depends on the type of cancer, your age, the size of the growth and whether or not it has spread to the adjacent lymph nodes.