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Is Thyroid Cancer More Common in the Elderly?

September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, so we wanted to take this time to let you know the facts about this fastest-growing cancer diagnosis in the country. We also wanted to explore whether thyroid cancer is more common in the elderly. Here at Pathways, we take care of many patients with all kinds of cancers, including thyroid, within our home health care program in San Mateo and elsewhere.

According to the American Cancer Society, there were nearly 44,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in 2023, with a bit over 2,100 deaths. Thyroid cancer is actually diagnosed at a younger age than many other adult cancers, with the average age of diagnosis being 51. However, it happens to be one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in the U.S., due to increased detection and more advanced diagnostic procedures such as CTs and MRIs. This type of cancer is three times more common in females than males.

4 Top Risk Factors for Thyroid Cancer

Check out these factors that can increase your risk of developing thyroid cancer.

  1. Age and gender: As said above, thyroid cancer happens 3x more often in females than males. Yes, it can occur at any age, but the risk peaks earlier for females when they are in their 40s and 50s than for men, who are usually into their 60s or 70s at diagnosis, says the American Cancer Society.
  2. Obesity: When you are overweight or obese, you are at a higher risk of getting thyroid cancer; your risk rises as BMI (body mass index) goes up.
  3. Heredity: Many inherited conditions can be connected to various types of thyroid cancer, in addition to family history. However, it has been found that most people who get thyroid cancer do not actually have a family history or an inherited condition.
  4. Radiation exposure: This risk factor originates from medical treatments and radiation fallout due to exposure to power plant leaks or nuclear weapons. If you had head and neck radiation treatments as a child, you are also at a higher risk.

Early detection is key. With earlier and more sensitive diagnostic procedures, it’s possible for thyroid cancer to be detected and treated at much earlier ages than in past years. That’s because most early cases are detected when people visit their doctor when they have felt a lump or nodule on their neck. Other times, doctors detect thyroid cancer when performing routine checkups. And still other times, it’s detected when people get a CT scan or MRI for something else totally unrelated.

While ultrasound and blood tests can identify changes in the thyroid, they aren’t designed to be used as screening tests for thyroid cancer — that is unless you have an elevated risk originating from family history. If you are at average risk, there is no screening test as of yet for early detection of thyroid cancer.

Thyroid Cancer Symptoms

Thyroid cancer happens when there is a rapid growth of cells that starts in the thyroid. Your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck, often comes with no symptoms at first, says the Mayo Clinic. However, with the advancement of the cancer, signs will start to emerge such as neck swelling, difficulty swallowing, and changes in voice. Some kinds of thyroid cancer grow slowly, while others can grow more rapidly and more aggressively. The good news is that most cases of thyroid cancers are treatable.

Symptoms to watch for include:

  • A lump on the neck
  • The sudden sensation of close-fitting shirt collars being too tight
  • Changes in voice (increased hoarseness, etc.)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain in the throat or neck
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

When mutations in the thyroid gland cells start to grow and multiply quickly, this leads to the presence of a tumor. It will soon invade nearby healthy tissue and start spreading to the lymph nodes in the neck. In some cases, those cells don’t stay confined to the neck, and start invading the lungs, bones, and other body parts.

Age and Recurrence

Thyroid cancer, like many cancers, can reoccur after treatment. As alluded to above, age happens to be an independent risk factor for the prediction of whether or not thyroid cancer will reoccur, points out the journal Thyroid. Researchers say that the older a person is when initially diagnosed, the higher their risk of recurrence will be. Other factors, such as the stage you are at diagnosis, can also play a role.

Thankfully, thyroid cancer retains a good prognosis for most patients, even though doctors and scientists know that advancing age is one of the biggest factors associated with more life-threatening prognoses.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

As said above, many of our patients in our home health care program suffer from thyroid cancer. Our compassionate staff will do all we can to ensure their comfort and quality of life. Learn more about us when you contact us today at 888-978-1306.