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On the Lookout for Endocrine Cancers

Thyroid is the Most Common Cancer in This Group

thyroid test

When it comes to cancers, endocrine cancers aren’t often talked about. But that doesn’t make them any less important.

Endocrine glands make hormones and release them into the blood so they can reach tissues and organs all over the body. The hormones released by the endocrine system control many important functions in the body, such as metabolism, growth, and reproduction. Tumors can occur in any of the major endocrine glands, including the thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal. 

Thyroid is the most common endocrine cancer. Women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with this cancer than men. Women are usually diagnosed in their 40s and 50s, while endocrine cancer usually strikes men later in life, well into their 60s and 70s, according to Dr. Chris Young, an endocrine general surgeon at OSF HealthCare.

“I treat a myriad of diseases associated with the thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands," says Dr. Young. "Some are benign, some are malignant. While all three glands can have malignancies, parathyroid and adrenal cancers are very rare. Thyroid is the major cancer, but all three have benign diseases that go along with them, whether its their function or large nodules associated with them.”

Symptoms of endocrine cancer aren’t always apparent. For example, some patients with thyroid tumors may notice a lump on their neck, while others don’t. Symptoms can also develop as a tumor grows in size. Or, doctors may notice symptoms while treating a patient for a completely different reason.

“Thyroid nodules are diagnosed clinically, either primary care or someone else has picked it up on clinical exam, or very commonly they’re seen on other imaging exams, such as carotid ultrasound or CT scan of the neck that just happens to pick up these nodules,” says Dr. Young. 

Risk factors for endocrine cancers can include obesity, smoking and radiation exposure. For some endocrine tumors, surgery is the only treatment. For those that are cancerous, another approach sometimes used is radiation therapy.

“The parathyroid is removed. There’s usually four glands and we remove either one or multiple glands that are functioning abnormally," says Dr. Young. "Thyroid is the same thing. We remove either part of the gland or the entire gland to treat nodules or cancer or an over functioning thyroid gland. With adrenal it’s similar. That’s removal of one of the two glands and it’s pretty rare that we would remove both of them.”

Dr. Young adds that, if caught early, endocrine cancer can be successfully treated. If you suspect any problems, contact your physician as soon as possible.

“There is a small subset of very aggressive thyroid cancers, but luckily those are pretty rare," he says. "Overall, the outlook is usually pretty good for these folks. Most people don’t end up dying from thyroid cancer, even if we’re not able to totally cure it. We’re usually able to control it to a good degree.”

For more information on cancer care, including treatments, patient education and support services, click here.

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