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Chief Justice William Rehnquist Dies

Rehnquist Was 80 Years Old and Had Thyroid Cancer

Aggressive Thyroid Cancers

Medullary thyroid cancer is uncommon -- accounting for about 5% of all thyroid cancers. Unlike other types of thyroid cancer, it is difficult to treat and usually is not curable.

Treatment requires surgery to remove nearly all of the thyroid and removal of surrounding lymph nodes.

By the time patients are diagnosed as many as 50% have cancer that has already spread to other organs such as lymph nodes. About 10% of patients have cancer that has already spread to the lungs or liver.

Medullary thyroid cancer occurs in families in about 20% of cases. Hereditary medullary thyroid cancer often occurs with other types of hormone-producing tumors. This syndrome is called MEN -- multiple endocrine neoplasia.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a highly aggressive cancer. It is very uncommon, representing less than 2% of all thyroid cancers. Fewer than 300 cases are reported annually in the U.S., according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.

This type of cancer can be seen primarily in patients older than 50. It starts as a rapidly expanding mass in the neck associated with signs of compression -- hoarseness, shortness of breath, and difficulty swallowing. Duration of symptoms is generally short, lasting from weeks to a few months.

The average survival time for anaplastic cancer is six to nine months.

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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