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Chief Justice Hospitalized With Thyroid Cancer

Quick Return to Bench Expected for Rehnquist

WebMD Health News

Oct. 25, 2004 -- U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has thyroid cancer, the Supreme Court announced today.

Rehnquist, who turned 80 on Oct. 1, entered Bethesda Naval Hospital last Friday to undergo a tracheotomy related to thyroid cancer, a court spokesman says. The tracheotomy, a surgical procedure to create an airway through the neck, appears to have been required due to complications arising from treatment.

Thyroid cancer is considered very treatable. Unless the disease is very advanced, it is rarely fatal. News reports say Rehnquist is expected to be released from the hospital later this week. He is expected to return to the bench for arguments scheduled on Nov. 1.

Rehnquist becomes the fourth cancer survivor sitting on the Supreme Court:

  • In 1988, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • In 1992, Justice John Paul Stevens underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer.
  • In 1999, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery for colon cancer previously treated with radiation and chemotherapy.

 

What Is Thyroid Cancer?

Thyroid cancer is a disease in which cancerous (malignant) cells are found in the tissues of the thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland is in the lower front of the neck at the base of the throat. It has two lobes, one on the right side and one on the left. The two lobes are connected with a smaller lobe called the isthmus. The thyroid gland makes important hormones that help the body function.

There are four main types of thyroid cancer:

  1. Papillary
  2. Follicular
  3. Medullary
  4. Anaplastic

Thyroid cancers are usually found when a bump is seen in the neck. A biopsy will determine whether the nodule (bump) contains cancer. Only about 5%-10% of nodules are cancerous.

The majority of thyroid cancers are either papillary or follicular cancers. These are commonly called well-differentiated cancers.

There are about 18,000 cases of thyroid cancer annually in the U.S. (13,000 women and 4,600 men), accounting for about 1.1% of all cancer cases and about 1,200 deaths a year.

What Are the Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer?

Often, thyroid cancer has no symptoms and is found by chance at a doctor's visit. When symptoms are present, the cancer can appear as a gradually enlarging lump on the front part of the neck that moves when swallowing. Any lump in the neck should be brought to the attention of your health-care provider.

What Are the Causes of Thyroid Cancer?

No one knows what causes thyroid cancer, but experts have identified many risk factors:

  • Exposure to large amounts of radiation (either from the environment or in those who have had radiation treatment for medical problems in the head and neck, such as acne or fungal infections of the face). The cancer may not occur until 20 years or longer after radiation treatment.
  • Heredity (particularly for medullary thyroid cancer).
  • Sex. Cancer of the thyroid is more common in women than in men.

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