Brooke Burke-Charvet, co-host of Dancing With the Stars, announced Thursday that she has thyroid cancer. The 41-year-old mother of four will undergo surgery to have a thyroidectomy, a procedure to remove part or all of the thyroid gland.
The thyroid, which is found in the neck, produces hormones that help control the body’s metabolism. WebMD spoke with Neil D. Gross, MD, a cancer specialist and surgeon at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, about the disease. Gross is not involved in Burke-Charvet's treatment.
“Thyroid cancer is a very common cancer that predominantly affects younger women,” Gross says. “It’s the fifth most common cancer diagnosed in women.”
What are the signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer?
“Most of the time, it is diagnosed by accident, or incidentally,” Gross says. “A family doctor or obstetrician, both of whom are trained to examine the neck, may spot a suspicious lump during a routine visit, for example. Sometimes it might be picked up first after a car accident, when a patient with whiplash gets a neck X-ray. It’s rare for a patient to come in saying ‘I feel something’ or ‘something hurts.’ But it is possible that they could feel a lump in the mid to lower portion of their neck. Rarer still is the sudden onset of hoarseness. This happens when the cancerous nodules on the affected side of the thyroid grow large enough to press on nerves from nearby vocal cords, paralyzing them on that side. When that happens, their voice becomes nothing more than a whisper.”
Who is at greatest risk of developing thyroid cancer?
“Young women of childbearing years, those under the age of 45, are the most likely to get it. They get it about four times more often than men,” Gross says. “Brooke Burke appears to be a very common demographic for this disease.”
How is thyroid cancer diagnosed?
“If a family practitioner or obstetrician feels a suspicious lump, they will most often order an ultrasound,” Gross says. “If any of the nodules are more than a centimeter in size, a fine needle aspiration biopsy of the thyroid should be done to draw out cells, which can then be looked at under a microscope. That’s very standard.”
What are the risk factors for thyroid cancer?
“There are few known risk factors, and the major one is radiation,” he says. “For example, children downwind of Chernobyl grew up with a higher risk of thyroid cancer. Children treated for lymphoma whose chest and neck areas were exposed to radiation therapy also are at higher risk. Some types of thyroid cancer run in the family, but the common ones are sporadic, occurring without any [family] history.”