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Chief Justice Hospitalized With Thyroid Cancer

Quick Return to Bench Expected for Rehnquist

How Is Thyroid Cancer Diagnosed?

A doctor's exam is the first step. After taking a careful medical history, the doctor will feel the neck for lumps or other abnormalities.

If a lump is found, further testing may be warranted. Testing may include:

  • Blood tests to look for any abnormalities in the production of thyroid hormones.
  • An ultrasound to see the structure of the mass or lump within the thyroid.
  • A thyroid scan to see if the thyroid lump is making too many hormones.
  • Biopsy. Using ultrasound to see the lump, the doctor can take a small amount of tissue from the lump for laboratory analysis. Also, if there is fluid within the lump, the doctor can take a sample to look for cancer cells.

What Is the Treatment for Thyroid Cancer?

Four types of treatment are used:

  • Surgery (removing the cancer)
  • Radiation therapy (usually in the form of radioactive iodine pills, but high-dose X-rays or other high-energy rays are also used)
  • Hormone therapy (using hormones to stop cancer cells from growing)
  • Chemotherapy (using drugs to kill cancer cells)

Surgery is the most common treatment of cancer of the thyroid. A doctor may remove the cancer using one of the following operations:

  • Lobectomy removes only the side of the thyroid where the cancer is found. Lymph nodes in the area may be taken out (biopsied) to see if they contain cancer.
  • Near-total thyroidectomy removes all of the thyroid except for a small part.
  • Total thyroidectomy removes the entire thyroid.
  • Lymph node dissection removes lymph nodes in the neck that contain cancer.

Radiation therapy uses X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation for cancer of the thyroid may come from a machine (external beam radiation therapy) or from drinking a liquid that contains radioactive iodine. Because the thyroid takes up iodine, the radioactive iodine collects in any thyroid tissue remaining in the body and kills the cancer cells.

Hormone therapy uses hormones to stop cancer cells from growing. In treating thyroid cancer, hormones can be used to stop the body from making other hormones that might make cancer cells grow. Hormones are usually given as pills.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be taken by pill, or it may be injected in a vein or muscle. Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the drug enters the bloodstream, travels through the body, and can kill cancer cells outside the thyroid.

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