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Cancer Health Center

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Chief Justice Hospitalized With Thyroid Cancer

Quick Return to Bench Expected for Rehnquist

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.

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.

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