Thyroid Cancer Signs and Symptoms

One of the most common questions I get is "What were your thyroid cancer symptoms?"

And the answer often surprises people.

I had gone in to the university health clinic for a sore throat and a problem with my tonsils. The doctor was routinely checking my neck when he noticed a lump on the front of my neck, slightly to the left side. He made me look up and to one side, then the other side. He then asked if he could bring in someone else to also take a look at my neck.

Once the doctor pointed out the lump, I was surprised that I hadn't noticed it myself as it was fairly prominent. Other than the rather sizeable lump on my neck, I had no other symptoms. Which was a good sign. If I stretched my neck by looking up and swallowed, I could feel the lump was fairly hard and a little uncomfortable.

I've since learned about the importance of doing the neck check to catch early signs of thyroid cancer as early as possible.

An ultrasound showed that I actually had several nodules on my thyroid, on both sides. I eventually got a fine needle aspiration biopsy, which was when it was confirmed that I had papillary thyroid cancer. Sometimes the biopsy can come back inconclusive, at which point some physicians suggested waiting and monitoring or depending on the situation, recommend surgery to remove the nodule(s) for further investigation by a pathologist.

Although a full thyroid blood test is helpful to determine thyroid hormone levels, it is not possible to diagnose thyroid cancer through just a blood test. It wasn't until after my total thyroidectomy (where a few lymph nodes were removed as well) that the pathologist confirmed that I had an aggressive tall cell variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma, which is more rare with higher recurrence rates. Because of this, it was highly recommended that I also go through radioactive iodine treatment.

Thyroid cancer typically doesn't have many signs early on, but symptoms of thyroid cancer can include: 

  • A lump on the neck (most common)
  • Changes in voice, possible hoarseness if the tumour grows big enough
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)  but more rare
  • Swollen lymph nodes in neck

Other terms:

  • Thyroid cancer is different from a goiter, which is a benign enlargement of the thyroid gland.
  • Thyroid nodules are little growths on the thyroid gland and can be either solid or fluid-filled. Thyroid nodules can be either cancerous or benign but most thyroid nodules are non-cancerous and don't cause symptoms. (However, I can personally attest to the fact that this information is of little comfort once you do get a confirmed cancer diagnosis!)
  • Thyroid adenomas and thyroid cysts are also benign growths.

So although it's possible that a lump on your neck isn't thyroid cancer, it's still important to get it checked out by a physician as soon as possible.


Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic

Variants of Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma


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Nadha Hassen

Founder at Thyroid Transitions
Nadha is a health researcher and chronic illness advocate based in Toronto. A "thyroidless thriver", she strives to support people at all stages of their thyroid process. She is currently a PhD student and received her Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Toronto, specializing in Health Promotion.
Posted in Personal Entries, Thyroid Cancer.

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