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The Often Overlooked Warning Signs of Thyroid Cancer

July 22, 2020
Published in: Cancer, Primary Care

Doctor checking a man's neck for abnormalities

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2020, approximately 52,890 new cases of thyroid cancer will be diagnosed and that there will be approximately 2,180 deaths from thyroid cancer. While most thyroid cancer is found by accident, there are warning signs you should be aware of for a better chance of early detection.

Pay Attention to the Signs

Thyroid cancer is commonly diagnosed at a younger age than most other adult cancers. Women are three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men. Below are several overlooked signs of thyroid cancer.

  • Lump in the neck: About 90 percent of thyroid nodules are benign. However, if you have a large lump in the front of your neck below the adam's apple, pay attention to how it acts. Check if it moves up and down when you swallow, most other lumps won't move.
  • Hoarse voice: The recurrent laryngeal nerve, which controls the muscles that open and close the vocal cords, lies right behind the thyroid. In rare cases a nodule, particularly a cancerous one, can extend beyond the thyroid, damaging the nerve and affecting your vocal box.
  • Chronic cough: A small percentage of people diagnosed with thyroid cancer will develop a cough that comes with no other symptoms.
  • Neck pain: Generally starts in the front of the neck and can sometimes travel up to your ears.
  • Trouble breathing: Even when you're not swallowing or speaking, thyroid symptoms can make it hard to breathe. You may feel short of breath when you aren't active, especially when you are lying flat.

If you have any of these signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor right away. Many of these symptoms can also be caused by non-cancerous conditions or even other cancers of the neck area.

Testing for Thyroid Cancer

If there is a reason to suspect you might have thyroid cancer, your doctor will use one or more tests to confirm the diagnosis.


Imaging tests may be done for a number of reasons:
  • To help find suspicious areas that might be cancer
  • To learn how far cancer may have spread
  • To help determine if treatment is working
People who may have thyroid cancer will most likely have one or more of these tests:
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI
  • CT Scan
  • PET Scan
  • Radioiodine Scan
  • Chest X-Ray


The actual diagnosis of thyroid cancer is made with a biopsy, in which cells from the suspicious area are removed and looked at in the lab.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are not used to find thyroid cancer. Blood tests can help show if your thyroid is working normally, which may help the doctor decide what other tests may be needed. Here are the levels that a generally checked:

  • Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)
  • T3 & T4 (Thyroid Hormones)
  • Thyroglobulin
  • Calcitonin
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA)

Vocal Cord Exam

Thyroid tumors can sometimes impact the vocal cords. If you are going to have surgery to treat thyroid cancer, a procedure called a laryngoscopy will probably be done first to see if the vocal cords are moving normally. For this exam, the doctor looks down the throat at the larynx (voice box) with special mirrors or with a laryngoscope, a thin tube with a light and a lens on the end for viewing.

Be sure to contact your primary care provider if you notice any symptoms or have any concerns about your health.