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Understanding your risk

Like other cancers, your risk depends on many variables, including:

  • Family history
  • Lifestyle behavior (e.g. smoking)
  • General health

Optum’s oncology department offers comprehensive cancer risk assessments and hereditary cancer genetics evaluation programs to help you identify your risk.

Diagnosing thyroid cancer

In most cases, someone with thyroid cancer does not experience any symptoms. It is usually found during a routine neck examination or incidentally during an imaging study of the neck. When the cancer begins to develop, a person may notice a lump in the front of their neck.

If you suspect you may have thyroid cancer, contact your doctor about performing a diagnostic evaluation where they will:

  • Discuss your medical history, family history, and any symptoms
  • Check for abnormal lumps or growths and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck

If your provider decides further examination is appropriate, they may perform the following diagnostic tests:

  • Blood Tests: Thyroid function tests including thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and possibly thyroid hormone levels (T3 and T4) .
  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to provide a detailed image of the thyroid, check on its size, as well as the size and characteristics of thyroid nodules that have developed in the gland.
  • Biopsy: The only way to definitively detect thyroid is through a biopsy. During this procedure, the doctor will extract a sample of the suspicious tissue. This is usually done as a fine needle aspiration, where a needle is inserted into the nodule and cells are withdrawn into a syringe. A pathologist in a lab will examine this tissue to determine if the growth is cancerous.

Types of thyroid cancer

  • Papillary Thyroid Cancer: This type of cancer grows in finger-like shapes on the thyroid and tends to spread to lymph nodes. However, the outlook for people who develop this type of cancer is generally good because it grows slowly.
  • Follicular Thyroid Cancer: Follicular cancer affects the follicular cells in the thyroid and is more likely to spread to distant organs than papillary cancer.
  • Medullary Thyroid Cancer: Medullary cancer develops in C cells in the thyroid, which make a hormone that controls the level of calcium in the blood.
  • Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer: Anaplastic cancer is by far the most aggressive form of thyroid cancer and is often more difficult to treat.


  • Thyroidectomy is a surgery to remove half of the thyroid or the whole thyroid and possibly lymph nodes in the neck.
  • Thyroid hormone replacement therapy helps maintain normal metabolism rates and stop any remaining cancer cells from growing.
  • Radioactive iodine ablation helps to eliminate any remaining thyroid cells.
  • Chemotherapy administers chemicals in pill or IV form to kill and slow the growth of cancer cells.

Medical care and help

To find a thyroid cancer specialist near you, visit our providers page.

Click here to learn more about Optum’s minimally invasive robotic assisted surgery options.

Contact us if you have any questions.