Chief Justice William Rehnquist Dies

Rehnquist Was 80 Years Old and Had Thyroid Cancer

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Sept. 3, 2005 -- U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has died, less than one year after announcing he had thyroid cancer. He was 80 years old.

Rehnquist died at his home in Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., with his three children at his side. He had been a widower since 1991.

"The Chief Justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his duties on the court until a precipitous decline in his health the last couple of days," the Associated Press quotes Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg as stating.

Thyroid Cancer Announced in 2004

The Supreme Court announced that Rehnquist had thyroid cancer in October 2004. He never said what type of thyroid cancer he had.

Rehnquist had a tracheotomy and received chemotherapy and radiation as part of his treatment. He was also hospitalized briefly with a fever in July 2005. He remained the Supreme Court's Chief Justice throughout his illness.

Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for more than 33 years. He was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Nixon in 1971 and began serving on the court in 1972. In 1986, President Reagan nominated Rehnquist to be the Chief Justice.

What Is Thyroid Cancer?

There are about 18,000 cases of thyroid cancer annually in the U.S. (13,000 women and 4,600 men), accounting for about 1.1% of all cancer cases and about 1,200 deaths a year.

Most patients are cured of their disease or live many years with the disease.

The thyroid gland -- located in the lower front of the neck at the base of the throat -- has two lobes. The thyroid gland makes two important hormones that help the body function.

Thyroid cancers are usually found when a bump is seen in the neck. A biopsy will determine whether the nodule (bump) contains cancer. Only about 5%-10% of nodules are cancerous.

More Information on Thyroid Cancers

There are four main types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary
  • Follicular
  • Medullary
  • Anaplastic

The majority of thyroid cancers are either papillary or follicular cancers. These are commonly called well-differentiated cancers. Both medullary and anaplastic are undifferentiated, a more aggressive type of 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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SOURCES: Associated Press. Supreme Court of the United States, "The Justices of the Supreme Court." WebMD Medical News: "Chief Justice Hospitalized With Thyroid Cancer." WebMD Medical News: "Chief Justice Hospitalized With Fever." National Institutes of Health. American Cancer Society. American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
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