Papillary Thyroid Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

Thyroid cancer is on the rise, with over 50,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year. Of all thyroid cancers, papillary thyroid carcinoma (PTC) is the most prevalent, accounting for 80-85% of cases.

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, this can help you understand the condition and its management.

What is Papillary Thyroid Cancer?

The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped organ located at the base of your neck that produces hormones to regulate your metabolism. Papillary thyroid cancer begins in the follicular cells of the thyroid that make thyroglobulin – a protein essential for hormone production.

PTC is considered a “differentiated” thyroid cancer, meaning the cancerous cells resemble normal thyroid tissue. It tends to develop slowly, often only affecting one lobe of the thyroid initially.

While not always the case, PTC is usually easier to treat compared to other aggressive thyroid cancers. With timely diagnosis and proper treatment, outcomes are often excellent.

What Causes Papillary Thyroid Cancer?

The exact causes of papillary thyroid cancer are unclear, but certain risk factors have been identified:

  • Gender: PTC occurs 3 times more frequently in women than men.
  • Age: Most common between ages 30-50 years old.
  • Radiation exposure: External radiation exposure or prior radiotherapy to the head or neck area can increase risk.
  • Heredity: A family history of thyroid cancer may predispose some people.

However, it’s important to note that most cases occur in people with no apparent risk factors.

How Common is Papillary Thyroid Cancer?

Papillary thyroid cancer is the most prevalent type of thyroid cancer, accounting for about 80% of all thyroid cancer cases.

According to the American Cancer Society, over 50,000 new cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed annually in the U.S. and around 90% are papillary thyroid cancers. The incidence of papillary thyroid cancer has been steadily rising over the past few decades for reasons that are not yet fully understood.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms

In the early stages, papillary thyroid cancer usually does not cause any noticeable symptoms. As the cancer grows larger, it may cause:

  • A painless lump or nodule in the neck that can be felt through the skin
  • Hoarseness or voice changes
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swollen neck lymph nodes
  • Unexplained cough

If you notice any of these symptoms, make sure to consult your doctor promptly for evaluation.

How is Papillary Thyroid Cancer Diagnosed?

If papillary thyroid cancer is suspected, your doctor will likely recommend:

  • Physical exam: Feeling the neck area for lumps/nodules.
  • Blood tests: To check thyroid hormone levels.
  • Imaging tests: Ultrasound, CT scan, MRI or radionuclide scan to visualize the thyroid.
  • Biopsy: Fine needle aspiration to extract cells for examination.
  • Surgery: Removing all or part of the thyroid for pathological analysis.

These combined tests can confirm a papillary thyroid cancer diagnosis and determine the cancer’s size and spread.

Staging of Papillary Thyroid Cancer

The stage of papillary thyroid cancer indicates how far it has advanced. Staging helps determine the best treatment approach.

  • Stage I: The tumor is less than 2 cm and is limited to the thyroid. This is the earliest stage with the best prognosis.
  • Stage II: The tumor is 2-4 cm and is limited to the thyroid.
  • Stage III: The tumor is larger than 4 cm and limited to the thyroid or has minimal spread to neck lymph nodes.
  • Stage IVA: The tumor has further spread beyond the thyroid to nearby structures in the neck, such as the larynx.
  • Stage IVB: The cancer has metastasized to distant sites like the lungs or bones.

What is the Prognosis for Papillary Thyroid Cancer?

The prognosis for papillary thyroid cancer is generally very favorable, especially when diagnosed early. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year relative survival rate for papillary thyroid cancer is:

  • Stage I: Near 100%
  • Stage II: Near 100%
  • Stage III: 93%
  • Stage IVA: 51%
  • Stage IVB: 7%

With appropriate long-term follow-up care, many patients go on to lead full, healthy lives.

Read More: How is Papillary Thyroid Cancer Treated

Coping With a Papillary Thyroid Cancer Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with thyroid cancer can be frightening and stressful. Seeking support is key to coping both emotionally and physically.

  • Connect with support groups – whether in-person or online, they provide a community that understands.
  • Consider counseling – to help process feelings of fear or anxiety post-diagnosis.
  • Communicate with your healthcare team – don’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns.
  • Learn about your treatment – understanding the process can help you feel more in control.
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle habits – to optimize your overall wellbeing.

Ongoing Research Brings New Hope

As a highly prevalent cancer, papillary thyroid cancer is the focus of extensive research. Scientists are making promising strides in:

  • Developing genomic tests to better characterize tumors
  • Identifying new gene mutations amenable to targeted therapy
  • Determining patients suitable for less invasive treatment
  • Improving risk stratification and long-term monitoring

Exciting progress continues, bringing enhanced diagnostic and management approaches.


While any cancer diagnosis is serious, the prognosis for papillary thyroid cancer is often excellent with early detection and proper treatment. By recognizing the signs, undergoing recommended screening, and adhering to follow-up care, outcomes can be very positive. Don’t hesitate to leverage available resources or join support communities. Continue to stay on top of the latest advancements in papillary thyroid cancer research and treatment. With the right information and care team, there is hope.

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