Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer can be complex. The experienced thyroid specialists at Penn Medicine are with you at every step, providing precise diagnosis and personalized treatment.

What Is Thyroid Cancer?

Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the bottom of your neck. It has two lobes — a left and right lobe — connected by a band of tissue called the isthmus.

The thyroid makes hormones that control processes like temperature regulation and metabolism. Thyroid cancer occurs when abnormal cells in this gland grow and multiply.

Thyroid cancers differ depending on the type of cell in which they form. Your thyroid gland contains two major cell types that make different hormones. These cells include:

  • C cells, which make a hormone that tells your body how to use calcium (calcitonin)
  • Follicular cells, which make thyroid hormones that control how your body creates and uses energy (metabolism)

Thyroid Cancer Symptoms

At first, you might not notice any thyroid cancer symptoms. But as the disease progresses, signs of thyroid cancer can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Lump or enlarged lymph node
  • Neck or throat pain
  • Persistent cough
  • Thyroid nodule (lump in the thyroid gland formed by abnormal growth of thyroid cells)
  • Voice changes, including hoarseness

While most thyroid nodules aren't cancer, all require evaluation. Doctors in the Penn Medicine Thyroid Center offer prompt diagnosis of all thyroid nodules. Our thyroid specialists are experts in thyroid cancer diagnosis and screenings.

What Are the Five Types of Thyroid Cancer?

We treat each type of thyroid cancer differently depending on the cells involved and how the cancer grows. Thyroid cancer types include:


Papillary thyroid cancer, the most common thyroid cancer, arises from follicular cells. Papillary thyroid cancer is a type of differentiated cancer.


This cancer also begins in follicular cells but is more likely to spread throughout the body. Follicular thyroid cancer is also a differentiated thyroid cancer that usually affects older men and women.

Experts classify thyroid cancers that start in follicular cells into two general categories:

  • Differentiated: Thyroid cancer cells look like normal thyroid tissue. Differentiated cancers grow slowly and are highly treatable.
  • Undifferentiated: Thyroid cancer cells don't look like typical thyroid cells. These cancers may grow slowly or quickly, but they are typically more difficult to treat than differentiated cancers.

Hurthle Cell

Hurthle cell thyroid cancer is a rare type of differentiated follicular thyroid cancer. Pathologists identify this cancer when cells turn red or pink during examination under a microscope. Hurthle cell thyroid cancer is more aggressive than other follicular thyroid cancers.


Medullary thyroid cancer begins in the C cells. This cancer can run in families but may also occur in people with no family history of the disease. This cancer is not a differentiated cancer and may spread to other organs before a thyroid nodule develops.


Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most aggressive thyroid cancer type. This cancer grows quickly and is an undifferentiated thyroid cancer.

Thyroid Cancer Causes & Family History

Experts don't always know what causes thyroid cancer. Exposure to high doses of radiation can cause the disease.

Some thyroid cancer runs in families. Having a close relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with thyroid cancer increases your risk of thyroid cancer. There are some inherited conditions that have been linked to different types of thyroid cancer. Some of these inherited conditions include:

  • Multiple endocrine neoplasiatype 2 (MEN 2)
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • Cowden Disease

Ask your care team if you think you may be at high-risk for thyroid cancer.

Thyroid Cancer Care: The Penn Medicine Advantage

When you're diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you want care from specialists who are experts in every aspect of thyroid disease. You'll find that expertise at the Penn Medicine.

People from throughout the Philadelphia region and beyond count on us for:

  • Industry-leading specialists: Your doctors are experts in endocrinology, nuclear medicine, surgical oncology, otorhinolaryngology/head and neck surgery, radiology and pathology. You may also work with experts in medical oncology, nutrition and speech pathology. Meet your thyroid cancer care team.
  • Comprehensive care: We offer personalized treatment plans created to meet your specific needs. Our experts collaborate to ensure you receive expert care.
  • Leading-edge treatments: Our experts are recognized throughout the world for their groundbreaking research in systemic treatments for advanced thyroid cancer.
  • Support and comfort: Trained nurse navigators and support professionals offer care and comfort to you and your loved ones during treatment.

Comprehensive Care for Thyroid Cancer

Many thyroid cancers are highly treatable when detected early. Our skilled thyroid specialists offer a range of thyroid cancer treatment services including:

Make an Appointment

Please call 800-789-7366 or request a callback.