How can you tell if a thyroid nodule is cancerous?

The actual diagnosis of thyroid cancer is made with a biopsy, in which cells are removed from the suspicious area and examined in the laboratory. If your doctor thinks a biopsy is needed, the easiest way to determine if a thyroid nodule or tumor is cancerous is by fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the thyroid nodule. Only a small number of thyroid nodules are cancerous. However, determining which nodules are cancerous cannot be done by evaluating symptoms alone.

Most cancerous thyroid nodules grow slowly and may be small when discovered by the doctor. Aggressive thyroid cancers are rare, with nodules that can be large, firm, fixed, and fast-growing. No, say experts in the Department of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery at Johns Hopkins. Thyroid nodules, even occasional cancerous ones, are treatable.

If your doctor suspects you have thyroid cancer, they will feel your neck for swelling or lumps. If you have a thyroid lump, your doctor may perform one or more of the following tests to confirm if the lump is cancerous. Blood tests can't show if a thyroid nodule is malignant or benign, but they can reveal how well the thyroid works. These tests can also show if a nodule is toxic or if it produces too much thyroxine, causing hyperthyroidism.

To perform this type of biopsy, the doctor uses a tiny needle attached to a syringe to remove a small sample of thyroid tumor cells. A thyroid fine-needle aspiration biopsy can collect samples of cells from the nodule, which, under a microscope, can provide the doctor with more information about the behavior of the nodule. People who have thyroid gland surgery may need to take thyroid hormone later to keep body chemistry in balance. Although thyroid cancer often causes no symptoms, an enlarged growth can sometimes cause swelling of the neck, pain, trouble swallowing, shortness of breath, or changes in your voice.

NYU Langone doctors were the first in the country to use ultrasound to identify thyroid nodules and determine if they could be cancerous. Receiving radiation therapy to the head, neck, or chest during childhood increases a person's risk of developing thyroid cancer. A newer alternative that your doctor can use to treat benign nodules in an office is called radiofrequency ablation (RFA). Possible complications of hyperthyroidism include irregular heartbeats, weak bones and thyrotoxic crises, a rare but life-threatening intensification of signs and symptoms that requires immediate medical attention.

The questions may relate to whether you have been exposed to too much radiation or if you have a family history of thyroid cancer or thyroid disease. If the thyroid nodule is toxic, which means it produces too much thyroxine, thyroid-stimulating hormone levels are usually low. For example, this scan may be useful for diagnosing advanced and rare papillary or follicular thyroid cancers. Even so, your doctor may want one done to help determine if the thyroid gland is working properly.

Thyroid nodules are solid or fluid-filled lumps that form inside the thyroid, a small gland located at the base of the neck, just above the breastbone. However, this blood test can rule out benign thyroid conditions, such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. If you have a thyroid nodule or an enlarged lymph node in your neck, you may need a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.

Greta Rulnick
Greta Rulnick

Friendly coffee advocate. Avid beer geek. Total tv aficionado. Music buff. Lifelong zombie guru.