Cancer is often thought of as a disease that affects older people, and with the median age of a cancer diagnosis at 66 years, it does. But cancer can be diagnosed at any age.
Younger people, including adolescents and young adults between ages 15 and 39 — known as AYAs — also are affected by cancer. Thyroid cancer is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in this age group. Fortunately, treatment is straightforward, and when thyroid cancer is treated early, the survival rates are excellent.
Awareness of thyroid cancer, as well as its symptoms and risk factors, can help adolescents and young adults recognize early warning signs and find prompt treatment during a time of life that is often filled with pivotal changes and life events.
Here's what you should know about thyroid cancer and how it can affect adolescents and young adults:
Should I be concerned about thyroid cancer?
Thyroid cancer has a great prognosis in adolescents and young adults, even though it is often aggressive.
"All cancers are rare in adolescents and young adults, but among those rare cancers, thyroid cancer is the most common in those younger than 30 years of age," says Siobhan Pittock, M.B., B.Ch., a Mayo Clinic pediatric endocrinologist. And it occurs more often in women.
"When thyroid cancer is diagnosed in younger adults, it may be diagnosed at a more advanced stage," says M. Regina Castro, M.D., a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist. "We don't really know why thyroid cancer behaves differently in young adults, but we know that despite the fact that it tends to be more aggressive, the prognosis is still excellent and better than in older adults."
Many people don't experience symptoms of thyroid cancer, which can result in the tumor spreading.
"The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a lump, nodule or a mass toward the back of the neck — sometimes on the side of the neck where the lymph nodes are found," says Dr. Castro.