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What are the symptoms?

Thyroid cancer usually develops slowly, without many obvious symptoms. However, some people experience one or more of the following:

  • a painless lump in the neck (the lump may grow gradually)
  • trouble swallowing
  • difficulty breathing
  • changes to the voice, e.g. hoarseness
  • swollen lymph glands (lymph nodes) in the neck (the lymph nodes may slowly grow in size over months or years).

Although a painless lump in the neck is a typical sign of thyroid cancer, thyroid lumps (nodules) are common and turn out to be benign in 90% of adults.

Having an underactive or overactive thyroid (hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism) is not typically a sign of thyroid cancer.

Which health professionals will I see?

Your general practitioner (GP) will arrange the first tests to assess your symptoms. If these tests do not rule out cancer, you will usually be referred to a specialist, such as an endocrinologist or endocrine surgeon. The specialist will arrange further tests.

If thyroid cancer is diagnosed, the specialist will consider treatment options. Often these will be discussed with other health professionals at a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting. During and after treatment, you will see a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care.

endocrinologistdiagnoses, treats and manages disorders of the endocrine system
endocrine surgeonoperates on the endocrine system, including the thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands, and the pancreas
ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeonoperates on the ears, nose and throat, including the thyroid and lymph nodes in the neck; checks the vocal cords before and after surgery
head and neck surgeondiagnoses and treats cancer of the head and neck; may be an ENT surgeon or general surgeon
nuclear medicine specialistcoordinates the delivery of radioactive iodine treatment and nuclear scans
nurses and nurse care coordinatoradminister drugs and provide care, support and information throughout treatment
radiation oncologisttreats cancer by prescribing and overseeing a course of radiation therapy
medical oncologisttreats cancer with drug therapies such as chemotherapy and targeted therapy
counsellorhelps you understand and manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment, usually in the short term
social workerlinks you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical and financial issues
dietitianrecommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery

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Understanding Thyroid Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed January 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Diana Learoyd, Endocrinologist, Northern Cancer Institute, and Northern Clinical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Dr Gabrielle Cehic, Nuclear Medicine Physician and Oncologist, South Australia Medical Imaging (SAMI), and Senior Staff Specialist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, SA; Dr Kiernan Hughes, Endocrinologist, Northern Endocrine and St Vincents Hospital, NSW; Yvonne King, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Dr Christine Lai, Senior Consultant Surgeon, Breast and Endocrine Surgical Unit, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and Senior Lecturer, Discipline of Surgery, University of Adelaide, SA; A/Prof Nat Lenzo, Nuclear Physician and Specialist in Internal Medicine, Group Clinical Director, GenesisCare Theranostics, and The University of Western Australia, WA; Ilona Lillington, Clinical Nurse Consultant (Thyroid and Brachytherapy), Cancer Care Services, Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital, QLD; Jonathan Park, Consumer.