Q: A female friend of mine was diagnosed with papillary cancer of the thyroid last week. She underwent an operation also last week and the doctor said the cancer has not spread yet. How common is thyroid cancer? What is the outlook for thyroid cancer victims? –Mary S., Manila
A: Thyroid cancer (i.e., cancer that originates from the thyroid gland) is the most common cancer that affects endocrine glands, yet it is rather rare; it accounts for less than one percent of all cancers. The thyroid gland though is a common site of metastases or spread of cancers that originate from other organs of the body such as the skin, the lungs, breast, and esophagus.
Thyroid cancer can occur at any age, but its incidence increases with age. It is three times more common in females than in males. At higher risk for the disease are those who received radiation therapy to the neck (note: in the 1950s radiation was sometimes employed to treat some skin disorders and enlarged thymus glands, adenoids and tonsils); and, those who have a family history of thyroid cancer.
The behavior and natural course of thyroid cancer depends on the type, and there are several. Some types metastasize or spread rapidly while others are relatively benign. Some are rapidly fatal while most are so slow growing that cancer victims “outlive” them.
The different types of thyroid cancer can be classified into either differentiated or undifferentiated. As a rule, differentiated thyroid cancers are slow growing while the undifferentiated ones are highly invasive.
Fortunately, more than 90 percent of thyroid cancers are differentiated. Of these, seven out of 10 are either papillary (the kind your friend has) or mixed papillary-follicular in type. The rest are follicular types.
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