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When It Comes to Thyroid Cancer, Check Your Neck

by UPMC

This summer, a Florida television reporter was diagnosed with cancer after a concerned viewer saw a lump on her neck and alerted her that it could be a tumor. The viewer immediately emailed her to tell her to get it checked out by a doctor. It turned out to be thyroid cancer. This reporter is just one of many TV stars to have their camera time help detect their cancer, however, you don’t need to be famous and on TV to benefit from checking your neck.

It’s important to take the time to understand your thyroid and how to recognize potential problems. The thyroid plays a crucial role in your overall health and well-being, so you should understand where it is, what it does, and how to recognize a potential issue. 

Why is Your Thyroid Gland Important?

The thyroid gland is a small organ located in our neck's base just below the Adam’s apple. The butterfly-shaped gland makes hormones that help control the function of many of your body's organs, including your heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and skin. It helps regulate body functions, including:

  • Body temperature
  • Body weight muscle strength 
  • Breathing
  • Central and peripheral nervous systems   
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Heart rate
  • Menstrual cycles

Hormone imbalance is common in the U.S. and can be caused by a variety of health issues including diabetes and thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer occurs in the tissues of the thyroid gland, a gland at the base of the throat that produces important hormones. If your thyroid isn’t functioning properly it may produce too much or too little thyroid hormone. 

How to do a Self-Check of Your Thyroid

More than 15 million of Americans have undiagnosed thyroid problems. Some thyroid conditions can be detected by seeing lumps or swollen areas in your neck. You can check your neck at home with just a mirror and a glass of water. Here is how to perform an easy at-home thyroid check:

  • Hold the mirror in your hand so you can see the middle and lower part of your neck. 
  • Tip your head back and take a drink of water. Looking in the mirror as you swallow.
  • Check for any bulges. Your Adam’s apple is not your thyroid and is a normal bulge in your neck. Your thyroid is lower on your neck, closer to your collarbone.
  • Repeat several times.

When to see a Doctor

You are at greater risk for developing thyroid cancer, if you have a family history of the disease, are over the age of 60, or have any symptoms. Common symptoms of thyroid cancer include:

  • A lump or swelling in the neck
  • Pain in the front of the neck, sometimes going up to the ears
  • Voice changes that do not go away
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • A persistent cough 

If you do see bulges during a self-exam or are experiencing symptoms, talk to your primary care provider. Your provider will order a simple blood test to check your TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) and may also order an ultrasound to examine the bulge. These tests will help your provider to rule out or confirm cancer and develop a diagnosis and treatment plan. Although thyroid cancer is rare, when detected early it is easily treated.

Learn more about Endocrinology Services offered at UPMC in the Susquehanna region.