Most people with thyroid disease don’t even know they have it. More than one in eight Americans will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime, but up to 60% are unaware of it.1
That’s because the symptoms — fatigue, depression, sleep disturbances and weight loss or gain, among others — could just as well be signs of other medical conditions and life stages.
That’s what makes Thyroid Awareness Month, which falls in January each year, so important. If both people and doctors think of thyroid problems more often, cases can be diagnosed earlier and the disease can be managed sooner.
What Is Thyroid Disease?
Thyroid disease is a medical condition that keeps your thyroid from producing the right amount of the hormones needed by your body’s systems to function. This small, butterfly-shaped gland at the lower front of your neck affects how well every cell, tissue and organ in your body works.
The cause of thyroid disease is unknown, but it can often be managed with medical attention. But first it has to be diagnosed through blood tests, imaging (scans or ultrasounds) and physical exams.
With hypothyroidism, the gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone and you can feel tired, gain weight and feel the cold more intensely.
On the flip side, when the gland produces too much hormone you can develop hyperthyroidism, leaving you feeling tired and nervous. You may also lose weight and find your heartbeat is rapid.
Graves’ disease is a specific form of hyperthyroidism, an autoimmune genetic disorder that affects about 1% of the U.S. population.2
Women are five to eight times more likely than men to be among the estimated 20 million Americans with a thyroid condition.3
Different types of benign (non-cancerous) growths and malignant (cancerous) tumors can develop in the thyroid gland. Thyroid nodules, for example, are common and usually benign; these lumps can be solid or filled with fluid. You should still seek immediate medical attention because, while most growths don’t turn out to be cancer, some do.4
What About Thyroid Cancer?
When the cells in the thyroid grow out of control, the disease can become thyroid cancer. In 2017, the latest year for Centers for Disease Control statistics, more than 33,000 women and nearly 12,000 men were diagnosed with thyroid cancer.5
Thyroid cancer has more specific symptoms than other forms of thyroid disease: a lump or swelling on the side of the neck, trouble or pain breathing or swallowing and a hoarse voice.6
What Are the Trends in Thyroid Cancer?
The yearly number of new thyroid cancer cases in the U.S. has grown steadily, from 18,000 in 1999 to a peak of 49,500 in 2015, with a small drop-off after that.7
In 2017, for every 100,000 Americans, 14 new thyroid cancer cases were reported and one person died.8
Scientists aren’t sure what causes thyroid cancer. But the risk factors include:9
- Being female.
- Being between the ages of 25 and 65.
- Being exposed to radiation as a child.
- Having a history of an enlarged thyroid.
- Having a family history of thyroid disease.
- Having certain genetic conditions, including familial medullary thyroid cancer (FMTC), multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A syndrome (MEN2A) and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B syndrome (MEN2B).
Gender and Race
The chances of a thyroid cancer diagnosis are nearly three times higher for women than for men.10
But if you’re Black or American Indian/Alaska Native, you have about a 45% lower chance of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer than if you’re white, Asian/Pacific Islander or Hispanic.11
Three factors influence the five-year survival rate for thyroid cancer patients: gender, age and race.12
- Survival rates are higher for women than for men: 98% versus 93.6%.
- Survival drops as people age, from 99.4% for those under 45 to 86.1% for those over 75.
- Survival is slightly lower for Blacks compared with whites and people of other races/ethnicities.
For women, thyroid cancer has the highest five-year survival rate of all cancers. For men, only prostate cancer and testicular cancer have higher survival rates.
Across all ages, genders, races and ethnicities, the rate of new cancers is higher in the extended New England area and some western and midwest states, including Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota and Kansas.13
How You Can Raise Awareness About Thyroid Disease
Thyroid Awareness Month highlights the crucial role the thyroid plays in the ability of major organs to function. It aims for more people to get tested if they have unexplained symptoms like those mentioned above. And it promotes early treatment.
As with any type of cancer, greater awareness leads to earlier detection, which can save lives. A cancer stage is defined by whether cancer cells have been contained within the thyroid or traveled to other parts of the body, which influences your treatment options as well as the odds of recovery.14
If you want to participate in Thyroid Awareness Month, here are six simple ways to get involved:
- Do a thyroid neck check. You’ll need a hand-held mirror and a glass of water. Tip your head back, take a sip of water and swallow. Using the mirror as you swallow, watch the lower front of your neck for any bulges or protrusions. If you see any, talk to your physician right away.
- Encourage friends and family to get tested. Although symptoms are pretty general, if a loved one complains of feeling cold, not sleeping well or having trouble swallowing, ask them to do the at-home neck check and suggest they see their doctor.
- If you can, donate. Even if thyroid disease hasn’t affected you directly, consider donating to:
- The American Thyroid Association (ATA): The ATA’s purpose is to improve the lives of those living with thyroid disease and cancer through research, awareness and education. Visit this link for donations.
- Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association (ThyCa): ThyCa provides education and comfort to all people diagnosed with thyroid cancer and their loved ones. Visit this link for donations.
- Share information online and off. ThyCa offers free materials to increase awareness of thyroid issues. Order some today and help spread the word.
- Share Your Thyroid Story. Paloma Health developed a video campaign that invites people to share their thyroid story to help raise awareness for thyroid disease symptoms, risk factors and treatment options. According to the organization, when someone submits a story, they’re automatically entered for a chance to win a thyroid support bundle giveaway.
- Use hashtags to raise awareness on social media. By using these designated hashtags from the ATA and ThyCA, your efforts to raise awareness will be multiplied:
#thyroid #hypothyroidism #thyroidhealing #thyroidproblems #thyroiddisease #thyroidhealth #autoimmunedisease #hormones #hyperthyroidism #hypothyroidism #hashimotos #cancer #thyroidcancer #autoimmune #thyroidweightloss #covid #hashimotosdisease #thyroidwarrior #thyroidawareness #thyroidectomy #hypothyroid
January is Thyroid Awareness Month and September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. But your efforts to raise awareness are needed year-round because most thyroid disease cases go undetected in their early stages.
Check yourself regularly with the swallow test. It only takes a minute or two. And stay vigilant when friends and family mention unexplained symptoms. If the signs fall in general categories such as fatigue, depression, sleep disturbances and weight loss or gain, encourage them to visit their doctor to have their thyroid checked.
Your efforts to promote Thyroid Awareness Month can help reduce the number of Americans who have a thyroid problem but don’t know and don’t get checked before a very treatable issue becomes much more serious.