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Unusual Cancers of Childhood (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI] - Unusual Cancers of the Head and Neck

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Thyroid Tumors

Thyroid tumors form in the tissues of the thyroid gland, which is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the throat near the windpipe. The thyroid gland makes important hormones that help control growth, heart rate, body temperature, and how quickly food is changed into energy.

Most childhood thyroid tumors occur in girls and children aged 15 to 19 years. Thyroid tumors may be adenomas (noncancer) or carcinomas (cancer).

  • Adenoma: Adenomas can grow very large and sometimes make hormones. Adenomas may become malignant (cancer) and spread to the lungs or lymph nodes in the neck. Thyroid cancer usually grows and spreads slowly.
  • Carcinoma: There are 3 types of thyroid cancer:
    • Papillary.
    • Follicular.
    • Medullary.

Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Diagnostic and Staging Tests

The risk of thyroid cancer is increased by being exposed to radiation and by certain genetic syndromes, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) type 2A syndrome or multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) type 2B syndrome. See the Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Syndromes and Carney Complex section of this summary for more information.

Thyroid tumors may cause any of the following symptoms. Check with your child's doctor if you see any of the following problems in your child:

  • A lump in the neck or near the collarbone.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Hoarseness or a change in the voice.

Other conditions that are not thyroid tumors may cause these same symptoms.

Tests to diagnose and stage thyroid tumors may include the following:

  • Physical exam and history.
  • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.
  • Open biopsy or surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid.

See the General Information section for a description of these tests and procedures.

Other tests used to diagnose and stage thyroid tumors include the following:

  • Ultrasound: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later. This procedure can show the size of a thyroid tumor and whether it is solid or a fluid -filled cyst. Ultrasound may be used to guide a fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.
  • Thyroid function test: The blood is checked for abnormal levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is made by the pituitary gland in the brain. It stimulates the release of thyroid hormone and controls how fast follicular thyroid cells grow. The blood may also be checked for high levels of the hormone calcitonin.
  • Thyroglobulin test: The blood is checked for the amount of thyroglobulin, a protein made by the thyroid gland. Thyroglobulin levels are low or absent with normal thyroid function but may be higher with thyroid cancer or other conditions.
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