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Hypothyroidism vs Thyroid Cancer: Key Differences in Symptoms, Causes and Diagnosis

Thyroid disorders affect nearly 20 million Americans and range from hypothyroidism, where the thyroid gland is underactive, to thyroid cancer resulting from abnormal thyroid cell growth. While both hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer can share some similar signs and symptoms, they have distinct underlying causes and management strategies.

Understanding the key differences between hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer is important for recognizing the conditions early and pursuing the appropriate treatment. This guide covers the differences in symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and daily living with hypothyroidism versus thyroid cancer.

What is Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism results when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone for the body’s needs. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck that helps regulate body temperature, heart rate, and metabolism.

In hypothyroidism, thyroid hormone levels are low, slowing metabolism and many body functions. This is in contrast to hyperthyroidism where thyroid hormones are overproduced.

The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease causing chronic thyroid gland inflammation. Other causes include surgical removal of the thyroid, radiation treatment to the thyroid, some medications, and congenital hypothyroidism present from birth.

Common symptoms of untreated hypothyroidism include fatigue, increased sensitivity to colds, unintentional weight gain, muscle weakness, dry skin, hair loss, constipation, depression, and irregular or heavy menstruation in women.

What is Thyroid Cancer?

Thyroid cancer develops when abnormal thyroid cell growth leads to the formation of malignant tumors in the thyroid gland. The thyroid cells lose the ability to control their growth leading to cancerous changes.

There are four main types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary thyroid cancer – the most common type making up about 80% of cases. Tend to grow slowly with a good prognosis.
  • Follicular thyroid cancer – the second most common type making up 10-15% of cases. Also slow-growing but with a slightly worse prognosis than papillary.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer – accounts for about 3% of thyroid cancers. Can spread more aggressively than papillary and follicular cancers.
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer – the least common but most aggressive type. Difficult to treat with poor prognosis.

In the early stages, thyroid cancer may not cause symptoms. As the tumors grow larger, possible symptoms include a lump in the neck, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, neck pain, swollen lymph nodes, and unexplained weight loss.

Key Differences in Symptoms

There are some overlapping symptoms between hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer that can make differentiating the two challenging in some cases. Shared symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight changes
  • Constipation
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Feeling cold

However, a noticeable lump or nodule in the neck strongly points more toward thyroid cancer as the cause rather than hypothyroidism alone. Difficulty swallowing and voice changes like hoarseness also lean more toward possible cancer.

Hypothyroidism is more likely to cause symptoms like heavier menstrual flow, depression, impaired memory, and intolerance to cold temperatures. The development of hypothyroidism symptoms tends to be more gradual as well.

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Diagnosing Hypothyroidism vs. Thyroid Cancer

Both hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer are diagnosed through physical examinations focusing on the neck area and thyroid function blood tests.

TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels give insight into thyroid function. High TSH indicates hypothyroidism whereas low TSH points more to hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease. Doctors may order additional thyroid hormone tests like free T4 and free T3.

If thyroid cancer is suspected, doctors may use imaging tests like neck ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, and thyroid scan using radioactive tracer. The only definitive way to diagnose thyroid cancer is by surgically removing cells from suspicious areas and testing them (biopsy).

Routine screening for thyroid cancer is not recommended in patients without symptoms or risk factors. However, hypothyroidism screening via TSH blood test is recommended for:

  • Women planning a pregnancy or are pregnant
  • People over 60 years old
  • Those with autoimmune disorders
  • Patients who received radiation therapy to the neck or chest
  • Individuals with a family history of thyroid disorders

Treatment Options for Hypothyroidism and Thyroid Cancer

Hypothyroidism treatment focuses on replacing the missing thyroid hormone to restore hormone balance and relieve symptoms. Daily oral levothyroxine (synthetic T4) medication is the standard treatment for hypothyroidism.

The initial dosage is adjusted over time based on follow-up blood tests and symptom monitoring. Lifestyle measures like maintaining a healthy body weight, reducing stress, and eating nutritious foods can help manage hypothyroidism as well.

For thyroid cancer, common treatments include:

  • Surgery – Removing the tumor and possibly all or most of the thyroid gland. Radioactive iodine therapy usually follows surgery to destroy any remaining thyroid tissue.
  • Radioactive iodine therapy – Taking radioactive iodine (I-131) orally to damage any residual thyroid cancer cells. Patients may need multiple treatments over time.
  • Thyroid hormone therapy – Daily levothyroxine medication to replace hormones after surgical removal of the thyroid. This requires lifelong treatment.
  • External beam radiation – Aimed at any thyroid cancer that has spread beyond the thyroid to tissues nearby.
  • Chemotherapy – Used for more advanced thyroid cancers when radiation and hormone therapy are ineffective.
  • Targeted drug therapy – Newer cancer drugs that target specific mutations found in thyroid cancer cells.

YOUR ROADMAP TO AVOID THYROID SURGERY

Living with Hypothyroidism vs. Thyroid Cancer

Managing hypothyroidism focuses on taking thyroid hormone medication regularly, maintaining hormone balance through blood work, and making healthy lifestyle choices to control symptoms. Without treatment, symptoms progressively worsen over time.

With thyroid cancer, follow-up care revolves around monitoring for cancer recurrence through exams and tests. Radioactive iodine scanning and measurements of thyroglobulin tumor marker levels in the blood help detect whether thyroid cancer has recurred or spread. Ongoing thyroid hormone therapy replaces the hormones the thyroid would normally make.

Both hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer survivors can lead full lives with proper treatment and monitoring. However, the emotional impacts of living with a thyroid disorder long-term shouldn’t be underestimated. Many patients struggle with anxiety over maintaining hormone balance or worrying about cancer coming back. Support groups can provide helpful connections with others facing the same journey.

Conclusion

Hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer share some common signs and symptoms but differ in their underlying causes and required treatments. While hypothyroidism is managed with hormone replacement medication, thyroid cancer often necessitates surgery and radioactive iodine therapy which can permanently damage thyroid function.

Being aware of the risks and symptoms of thyroid disease allows for earlier diagnosis and treatment. As with any chronic disease, good self-care practices and maintaining open communication with your healthcare team can help optimize health and quality of life. Consult a doctor promptly about any unexplained neck lumps, voice changes, swallowing difficulties, or other thyroid-related symptoms.

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