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Cancer Health Center

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Chief Justice Receiving Thyroid Cancer Chemo

Aggressive Treatment Suggests Rehnquist Has Advanced Form of Thyroid Cancer

WebMD Health News

Nov. 1, 2004 -- Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatment for thyroid cancer, according to news reports -- a sign that his cancer may be advanced.

Rehnquist, who turned 80 on Oct. 1, was released from Bethesda Naval Hospital last Friday after undergoing a tracheotomy related to thyroid cancer, a court spokesman says. A tracheotomy is a surgical procedure to create an airway through the neck.

The court has been relatively quiet about Rehnquist's condition, but news reports today are suggesting that he may have an advanced form of the disease. However, at this point it's unclear which type of thyroid cancer he has or how advanced it is.

Thyroid cancer is a disease of the thyroid gland. 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

Most thyroid cancers are very treatable, even curable. However, reports that Rehnquist is receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatment suggest that he has anaplastic thyroid cancer, an uncommon form that develops most often in older people. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is considered an advanced stage of cancer.

Traditional chemotherapy is not generally used to treat more common forms of thyroid cancer. But it is often used to treat anaplastic thyroid cancer. Anaplastic thyroid cancer grows quickly and has usually spread within the neck when it is found. Anaplastic thyroid cancer has a low survival rate: More than 90% of people with anaplastic thyroid cancer generally die within five years of being diagnosed.

Chemotherapy is also used to treat medullary thyroid cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. In this case, chemotherapy won't generally cure the thyroid cancer but can help relieve symptoms of the thyroid cancer as well as improve the patient's quality of life.

Radiation treatment is sometimes used to treat anaplastic and medullary thyroid cancers.

The most common types of thyroid cancer -- papillary and follicular thyroid cancer -- are much more treatable. If caught early, most people can be cured.

These forms of thyroid cancer are generally treated with surgery to remove the cancer -- and possibly the entire thyroid gland -- as well as radioactive iodine. Thyroid cancer is ideally suited for treatment with radioactive iodine because thyroid cells readily take up the radioactive iodine whereas non-thyroid cells do not. The radioactive iodine is used to kill any remaining thyroid cancer cells in the body after surgery. Only advanced forms of these thyroid cancers are treated with radiation or chemotherapy.

Nearly 24,000 cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Most occur in women. About 1,500 people die of thyroid cancer each year. The number of new cases of thyroid cancer is increasing.

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