6 Thyroid Cancer Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

Updated: Mar. 25, 2021

If you’ve noticed these signs, you could have thyroid cancer in need of treatment.

The importance of thyroid symptoms you can see

Most thyroid cancer is found by accident—doctors usually find it when patients are getting ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs for an unrelated reason. The nodules themselves are rarely noticeable, says Michael Tuttle, MD, an endocrinologist with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (Check out these other cancers that are hard to detect.) Patients can usually choose to keep an eye on the cancer and make sure it doesn’t get worse rather than getting treatment right away, he says. “I would ignore asymptomatic, millimeter-sized things that you’d only find if you’re looking for it,” he says. “But any signs or anything you can feel in the neck, that would cross over to something you should no longer ignore.” If you have any of these potential thyroid cancer symptoms, ask your doctor if you should get a fine needle aspiration to test for cancer. Learn more signs you could have thyroid disease (that isn’t cancer).

Woman feeling her neck.
Poprotskiy Alexey/Shutterstock

Lump in the neck

Men will often find a nodule while shaving, while women might notice one while putting on makeup, says Robert Smallridge, MD, professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida and deputy director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. (Don’t miss these other cancer symptoms women should never ignore and cancer signs men should never overlook.) About 90 percent of thyroid nodules are benign, but if you have a large lump in the front of your neck below the Adam’s apple, pay attention to how it acts. “The trick is it moves up and down when you swallow,” Dr. Tuttle says. “Most other lumps don’t move.”

Man feeling his throat.

Hoarse voice

The recurrent laryngeal nerve, which controls the muscles that open and close vocal cords, lies right behind the thyroid. In rare cases, a nodule, particularly a cancerous one, can extend beyond the thyroid, damaging that nerve and affecting your voice box, Dr. Smallridge says. “Most patients describe it as hoarseness,” he says. If your laryngitis is just from a cold and not thyroid cancer symptoms, find out how to get your voice back quickly.

Woman coughing.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Chronic cough

A small percentage of people with thyroid cancer will develop a mysterious cough that doesn’t come with any other symptoms typically related to congestion. “A cough from thyroid cancer is not infectious, so people are puzzled and wonder why they’re coughing with no fever and no phlegm,” Dr. Tuttle says. But before you jump to conclusions, check out these other reasons your cough won’t go away.

Woman sipping water.

Difficulty swallowing

A nodule that has gotten large enough that you’re having trouble swallowing could indicate the cancer is aggressive and highly malignant. “It’s rare but worrisome,” Dr. Tuttle says. “It means things have gotten big and are growing.” Difficulty swallowing could also be a symptom of throat cancer, so be sure to ask your doctor if you’re worried.

Woman in pain touching her neck.

Neck pain

You won’t be able to feel most thyroid cancer lumps—the soreness is more likely to come from one of these reasons for neck pain. “Hardly any are painful or uncomfortable,” says Dr. Tuttle. But in rare cases, the nodules can hurt. The pain would start in the front of your neck, and sometimes even travel all the way up to your ears, according to the American Cancer Society. If you’re cancer-free, try these stiff neck remedies instead.

Mouth-breathing man in bed.

 Trouble breathing

Even when you aren’t swallowing or speaking, thyroid cancer symptoms could make it hard to breathe. With anaplastic thyroid cancer—a very rare form that makes up only about 1 percent of thyroid cancer cases—nodules grow quickly. As the lump gets bigger, it could push against the windpipe and nerves, says Dr. Smallridge. You might feel short of breath when you aren’t active, especially when lying flat. Learn how to tell if your breathing issues are actually a sign of lung disease.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest