Now who has ever heard of this type of cancer (?) but it does happen and, strangely enough, it occurs predominantly in women!
Thyroid cancer is uncommon. Each year, about 2,300 people in the UK are diagnosed with it.
There are different types of thyroid cancer, which are divided into four different groups. This is because of the way the thyroid cells look when examined under a microscope.
Types of thyroid cancer
This is the most common type of thyroid cancer. It’s slow-growing and is found more in younger people, mostly women.
This is a less common type of cancer, usually found in young or middle-aged people. Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers are sometimes grouped together under the name differentiated thyroid cancer (DTC), as they are often treated in the same way. Most differentiated thyroid cancers are cured.
This is a rare type of thyroid cancer that can run in families. For this reason, members of your family may be checked to see if they are also at risk of developing this cancer.
This is a rare type of thyroid cancer that is fast-growing. It’s more common in people over 60 and in women. Unlike other types of thyroid cancer, it can be very difficult to treat.
It’s also possible to have a lymphoma of the thyroid gland. This starts in the lymph tissue of the thyroid. The lymph tissue is part of the body’s lymphatic system. Most thyroid lymphomas are a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
We have more information in our section on thyroid lymphoma below
Your doctor will be able to tell which type of thyroid cancer you have by examining a sample of cells from the cancer. Apart from the anaplastic and lymphoma types, thyroid cancer tends to develop very slowly, and it may be some years before it starts to cause any problems. With treatment, the outlook for most people with thyroid cancer is very good and most people are cured, even if the cancer has spread beyond the thyroid.
This information is about a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called thyroid lymphoma. It should ideally be read with our general information about non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system and helps us fight infection. It’s made up of organs such as the bone marrow, thymus, spleen, and the lymph nodes (or lymph glands). Lymph nodes are connected by a network of tiny lymphatic vessels that contain lymph fluid.
There are lymph nodes all over the body. As lymph fluid flows through the lymph nodes, the nodes collect and filter out anything that the body doesn’t need or is harmful. This includes bacteria, viruses, damaged cells and cancer cells.
Lymph fluid contains cells known as lymphocytes. These are a type of white blood cell that help the body fight infection and disease.
Lymphocytes start to grow in the bone marrow (where blood cells are made). The two main types of lymphocyte are B-cells and T-cells.
B-cells mature in the bone marrow, while T-cells mature in the thymus gland behind the breast bone. When they’re mature, both B-cells and T-cells help fight infections.
The thyroid gland
The thyroid is a small gland in the front of the neck, just below the voice box (larynx). It’s made up of two parts called lobes. The thyroid is one of a network of glands throughout the body that make up the endocrine system. This system is responsible for making hormones, which help to control different functions of the body.
Position of the thyroid gland
The thyroid keeps the body working at its normal rate (metabolism). It does this by making two hormones called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
Types of thyroid lymphoma
Most non-Hodgkin lymphomas start in the lymphatic system. However, some start outside the lymphatic system. When this happens, the lymphoma is described as being extranodal. Thyroid lymphoma is a type of extranodal lymphoma.
There are many different types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The main types that affect the thyroid gland are diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma.
Signs and symptoms of thyroid lymphoma
The most common symptom is a lump in the front of the neck. Sometimes there may be a larger swelling around the lower neck. This may cause other symptoms including:
- neck pain
- a hoarse voice
- difficulty swallowing
How thyroid lymphoma is diagnosed
Thyroid lymphoma can sometimes be difficult to diagnose and you may have several tests.
Ultrasound scan of the thyroid
Fine needle aspiration
Staging and grading of thyroid lymphoma
Non-Hodgkin lymphomas are usually divided into two groups:
- indolent lymphomas (sometimes called low-grade lymphomas), which are usually slow-growing
- aggressive lymphomas (sometimes called high-grade lymphomas), which grow more quickly and usually need to be treated soon after diagnosis.
Thyroid lymphoma can be fast-growing or slow-growing, depending on which type it is. MALT lymphomas are usually indolent and grow slowly. Diffuse large B-cell lymphomas are aggressive and tend to grow more quickly.
You usually have other tests to find out about the type of lymphoma and its stage. These may include blood tests, x-rays, scans and having a sample of bone marrow taken.
The results of these tests help doctors decide which treatment is most appropriate for you. You can read more about staging and grading in our general information about non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Treatment for thyroid lymphoma
Treatment for thyroid lymphoma depends on a number of factors including:
- the type of lymphoma
- its stage
- your general health
You may have only one type of treatment or a combination of treatments.
Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while causing as little harm as possible to the healthy cells.
For people who have slow-growing lymphoma that’s only in their thyroid, radiotherapy may be the only treatment they need. Treatment is given in the hospital radiotherapy department, usually from Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekends. The length of your treatment will depend on the type and size of the cancer. Your doctor will explain how long your course of treatment might be.
Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It can be given as tablets or into a vein (intravenously).
You may be given just one type of chemotherapy drug or you may be given two or more chemotherapy drugs together (combination chemotherapy regimen). Chemotherapy is often given with a drug called rituximab. Chemotherapy treatments for thyroid lymphoma include:
- CHOP, which includes the chemotherapy drugs cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin and vincristine, and the steroid prednisolone. You may also be given a monoclonal antibody drug called rituximab (Mabthera ®) in the combination (R-CHOP)
- CVP, which includes the chemotherapy drugs cyclophosphamide and vincristine and the steroid prednisolone. You may also be given the monoclonal antibody rituximab (R-CVP).
- The chemotherapy drug chlorambucil, which may be given with or without rituximab.
Monoclonal antibodies are drugs that recognise, target and stick to particular proteins on the surface of cancer cells, and can stimulate the body’s immune system to destroy the cells. The monoclonal antibody most commonly used to treat thyroid lymphoma is rituximab (Mabthera ®). It’s usually given in combination with chemotherapy.
Steroids are drugs that may be used to help make chemotherapy more effective. They also help you feel better and can reduce feelings of sickness. They’re usually given as tablets, but may also be given as an injection into a vein (intravenously). Possible side effects of steroids include weight gain, restlessness, agitation and sleep disturbance. These are temporary and usually go away when treatment finishes.
Surgery to remove the thyroid isn’t a common treatment for thyroid lymphoma. Research has shown that it does not increase the chance of curing thyroid lymphoma. It is occasionally done in people with slow-growing (indolent) lymphoma.
Thyroid hormone replacement
Often people who have been treated with radiotherapy or surgery will need thyroid hormone replacement treatment, as the thyroid becomes less active. This involves taking tablets to replace the hormones normally produced by the thyroid.
Clinical trials for thyroid lymphoma
New treatments for thyroid lymphoma are being researched all the time. Your doctor may invite you to take part in a clinical trial to compare a new treatment against the best available standard treatment. They will discuss the treatment with you, so that you have a full understanding of what it means to take part. You can leave the trial at any stage. You will then receive the best current treatment available.
Finding out you have thyroid lymphoma can be difficult. Everyone has their own way of dealing with their illness and the different emotions they have. Some people find it helpful to talk things over with family and friends or their doctor or nurse. You can also contact Macmillan’s cancer support specialists or the organisations below for more information and support.
The Lymphoma Association gives emotional support, advice and information on all aspects of NHL. It has a national network of people with lymphoma and local groups.
Leukaemia CARE is a national group promoting the welfare of people with leukaemia and related blood disorders, including NHL. It has regional support groups in many counties.
Ask Macmillan – they are always there to help. If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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