Thyroid cancer symptoms

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on June 7, 2022.

In its early stages, thyroid cancer may not cause signs or symptoms. In many cases, thyroid cancer is discovered during a routine neck examination or during an imaging scan performed to diagnose another condition.

What is the thyroid?

The thyroid is a quarter-sized, butterfly-shaped gland that wraps around the trachea. It produces hormones that control body temperature, heart rate and metabolism. Thyroid hormones also regulate how much calcium is present in the blood.

Risk factors for thyroid cancer

The risk of developing thyroid cancer is more common in patients who are:

  • Between the ages of 25 and 65
  • Exposed to radiation in the head or neck area
  • Women (females are three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with this type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society)

Early signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer

Although thyroid cancer may not cause symptoms until it's advanced, it's important to know that early signs may develop, including those listed below.

Swollen lump on neck

The most common early sign of thyroid cancer is an unusual lump, nodule or swelling in the neck. Patients who notice a new or growing lump should see a doctor, who can run additional tests to identify the cause and determine if it's a tumor. Most nodules on the thyroid are usually benign, but it's important to have any unusual growths examined by a health care professional.


Fatigue is a relatively common early sign of thyroid cancer, but because it's often caused by other conditions as well, it may be overlooked.

Swollen glands in the neck

If the thyroid cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, it may cause swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck.

A persistent cough

In some cases, thyroid cancer may cause nodules to grow on the thyroid, irritating the throat and causing a cough that won't subside, even after a cold or illness has passed.

Neck pain

In many cases, neck pain starts in the front of the neck. In some cases, the neck pain may extend all the way to the ears.

Voice changes

Experiencing hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away could be a sign of thyroid cancer.

Breathing problems

Sometimes thyroid cancer patients say it feels like they are breathing through a straw. This breathing difficulty is often a symptom of the disease.

Trouble swallowing

A growth or nodule on the thyroid gland may interfere with swallowing.

Recurrent thyroid cancer symptoms

It may be possible for thyroid cancer to return after treatment, so it's important to look for any indication of recurrence. Signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer recurrence may include:

  • Neck swelling or a lump in the neck that may grow rapidly
  • Neck pain that starts in the front of the neck and sometimes extends to the ears
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Voice changes or hoarseness
  • Continuous cough not related to a cold

Early thyroid cancer recurrence symptoms may not be apparent, so regular screenings and follow-up appointments are strongly recommended. At the follow-up appointments, the patient may undergo a physical exam, blood tests or imaging tests, such as radioiodine scans or ultrasounds. These tests are designed to screen for cancer recurrence and other health concerns. Make sure to discuss with the doctor any symptoms the patient may be experiencing. The timing and frequency of recommended follow-up appointments depend on many factors, including the stage and size of the original tumor.

How common is thyroid cancer recurrence?

Up to 30 percent of thyroid cancer patients may develop cancer recurrence. Of these patients, an estimated 80 percent develop thyroid cancer recurrence only in the neck area. The other 20 percent diagnosed with recurrent disease develop distant metastases, tumors that form in other areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver and bone. A number of thyroid cancer treatment options are available for primary and recurrent thyroid cancer, but early detection is key.

What to do about signs of thyroid cancer

Patients who experience signs of thyroid cancer should consult with a doctor to get an accurate thyroid cancer diagnosis.

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