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Thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer: Clinical
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Thyroid nodules are lumps on the thyroid gland that represent clusters of abnormally growing thyroid cells. They’re actually fairly common, and they’re often felt on palpation, or they’re discovered incidentally, like during an ultrasound of the thyroid gland.
There may be a single nodule or multiple nodules, and sometimes they form on a pre-existing goiter - which is when the thyroid is enlarged, usually due to an autoimmune attack on the thyroid gland, like with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or Graves’ disease.
The key thing to identify is whether or not the nodule is benign or is a thyroid cancer.
The thyroid is sensitive to radiation, so an important risk factor for thyroid cancer is prior radiation in the head or neck region, which might have been given for another malignancy in the area, like lymphoma.
Because thyroid nodules are fairly uncommon in young individuals, if they appear in a person below 20 years of age, they’re usually cancerous.
Finally, having symptoms related to the nodule like voice changes or a hoarse voice, and difficulty breathing or swallowing suggest that the nodule is an invading adjacent tissues and structures, a sign of thyroid cancer.
On a physical examination, a nodule is more likely to be thyroid cancer if it’s firm and hard on palpation, or if it’s fixed - meaning, it doesn’t move when the individual swallows.
Another warning sign is the presence of a swollen lymph node in the neck region, especially when the lymph node doesn’t hurt on palpation, and is only on one side.
The next step in evaluating the risk that a thyroid nodule is cancerous, is getting a TSH level and a thyroid ultrasound. Depending on the results of these tests, a fine needle aspiration may or may not be needed.
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