Work Well

Work Well advocates for a culture of wellness for UND faculty and staff through innovative engagement opportunities.

January Wellness Spotlight

January is Thyroid Awareness Month
Illustration showing the parts of the thyroid gland (right lobe, isthmus, left lobe) in relation to the thyroid cartilage and trachea

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2022 there were 43,800 new cases of thyroid cancer (11,860 in men and 31,940 in women). Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the thyroid gland. The thyroid is responsible for making hormones that help regulate metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Read more in the January Wellness Spotlight to learn about risk factors and early detection of thyroid cancer.

 Types of Thyroid Cancer

  • Papillary thyroid cancer
    • The most common type of thyroid cancer.
    • Can occur at any age
    • Tends to grow slowly and spread to lymph nodes in the neck
  • Follicular thyroid cancer
    • Makes up about 10% of all thyroid cancers
    • Can spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, but is more likely than papillary cancer to spread to distant organs, particularly the lungs and bones
  • Medullary thyroid cancer
    • Accounts for approximately 2% of all thyroid cancers
    • Approximately 25% of all medullary thyroid cancer is inherited and a test for genetic mutation can lead to an early diagnosis
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer
    • The most advanced and aggressive type of thyroid cancer
    • Very rare, accounts for less than 2% of all thyroid cancers
    • Most commonly occurs in people over the age of 60

Thyroid Cancer Risk Factors

Thyroid cancer is linked with a number of inherited conditions, but the exact cause of most thyroid cancers are unknown. In fact, most people with thyroid cancer have no known risk factors so it is not possible to prevent most cases of this disease. Risk factors are anything that increases a person’s chance of getting a disease. Different diseases have different risk factors. Some of these risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, cannot be changed.

Risk Factors That Cannot Be Changed

  • Gender
    • Thyroid cancers occur about 3 times more often in women than in men
  • Age
    • Thyroid cancer can occur at any age, but the risk peaks earlier for women (who are most often in their 40’s or 50’s when diagnosed)
    • Risk peaks later for men (who are usually in their 60’s or 70’s)
  • Family History
    • Having someone from your immediate family (parent, brother, sister, or child) with thyroid cancer increases your risk

Risk Factors That May Be Changed

  • Radiation
    • Exposure to radiation is a proven risk factor for thyroid cancer
    • Sources of radiation include certain medical treatments and radiation fallout from power plant accidents or nuclear weapons
    • Specifically, having had head or neck radiation treatments in childhood is a risk factor for thyroid cancer
      • Risk depends on how much radiation is given and the age of the child
      • In general, the risk increases with larger doses and with younger age at treatment
  • Being Overweight or Obese
    • According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), people who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing thyroid cancer compared to those who are not
  • Iodine in the Diet
    • Some thyroid cancers are more common in areas of the world where people’s diets are low in iodine
    • On the other hand, a diet high in iodine can increase the risk in other types of thyroid cancers
    • In the United States, most people get enough iodine in their diet because it is added to table salt and other foods

Early Detection of Thyroid CancerCute thyroid

Many cases of thyroid cancer can be found early. Most thyroid cancers are now found much earlier than in the past and can be treated successfully. Some signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer can include:

  • A lump in the neck, sometimes growing quickly
  • Swelling in the neck
  • Pain in the front of the neck, sometimes going up to the ears
  • Hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble breathing
  • A constant cough that is not due to a cold

If you have any of these signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor right away. Many of these symptoms can also be caused by non-cancerous conditions or even other cancers of the neck area.


American Cancer Society

American Thyroid Association