Thyroid cancer may be diagnosed after you experience one or more symptoms, or it might be found during a routine physical exam. Signs and symptoms might suggest you have thyroid cancer, but you will need specialized tests to confirm the diagnosis.


Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer
Symptoms vary depending on the type of thyroid cancer, but may include one or more of the following conditions:


  • A painless lump in the front of the neck
  • Hoarseness or voice changes
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Pain in the throat or neck that does not go away
  • A constant cough that is not due to a cold

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your physician right away so the cause can be diagnosed and treated promptly. Keep in mind that these symptoms may be caused by conditions other than thyroid cancer, such as an infection or a goiter (swollen thyroid gland).
Diagnostic Tests for Thyroid Cancer 
During a physical exam, your doctor will feel your thyroid and neck for lumps or swelling. If thyroid cancer is suspected, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood tests can help determine if your thyroid is working properly and detect tumor markers (substances in your body that are found at higher than normal levels in some people with cancer).
  • Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of your thyroid so your doctor can look for any nodules, determine their size and shape and establish if they are solid (more likely to be cancerous) or fluid-filled. Ultrasound testing can also be used to guide needle placement during a biopsy.
  • A biopsy is the only definitive way to diagnose thyroid cancer. Using a very thin needle, your physician removes cells from your thyroid nodule(s) for examination under a microscope. The test, called a fine-needle aspiration, is usually performed under ultrasound guidance by a radiologist or by your doctor in the office. In some cases, the whole nodule is removed during surgery for analysis (surgical biopsy).
  • For a thyroid scan or PET scan, a radioactive substance (radioactive iodine) is injected into your body and traced to see where it goes. This helps determine whether a thyroid nodule contains cancer cells. Radioactive iodine is used because thyroid cells are the only cells that absorb iodine. Abnormal thyroid cells take up less iodine than normal tissue.
  • Imaging tests such as (magnetic resonance imaging) MRI, (computed tomography) CT scan or chest X-ray can be used to create more detailed images that may reveal cancer in the thyroid and determine if it has metastasized, or spread.


How Can Houston Methodist Help?
At Houston Methodist, our physicians are dedicated to providing the best possible screening and treatment care to our patients, as well as leading-edge diagnosis and treatment options that deliver the best possible results.