After experiencing cold- and allergy-like symptoms for two months in 2014, journalist Christine Coppa, now 36, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. While most of the 56,870 diagnoses each year have a 90 percent survival rate, the disease primarily affects women, who comprise 75 percent of the cases. Coppa, who underwent a thyroidectomy and a round of radioactive iodine treatment taken in pill form, explains the symptoms she missed prior to her diagnosis.
(Editorâ€™s note: Experiencing one or more of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily indicate thyroid cancer, and always discuss any concerns with your doctor.)
1. I had a weird cough. I had a barky, dry cough for two months and didnâ€™t see my doctor, because I didnâ€™t have a fever, sore throat, or any other symptoms of the common cold. Plus, it was springtime and I was spending my nights on a dusty baseball field with my T-baller son, so I assumed it was allergies.
But it turned out my cough was an indicator I had a tumor in my neck. â€œA persistent cough can be due to a thyroid mass pressing on the trachea or the windpipe,â€ says Dr. Tom Thomas, director of head and neck reconstructive surgery and transoral robotic surgery at Morristown Medical Center. However – and a big however – he says a cough by itself is not an indication that someone definitely has a thyroid malignancy.
2. I choked on my food. Next on the list of weird things that happened: choking on raw carrots at work and suddenly not being able to swallow the bite. I played it cool and coughed the carrot into a tissue. It never happened again, but after seeing the ultrasound scan of the mass covering the right side of my thyroid, I found out why I had trouble swallowing.
â€œThe thyroid gland sits in front of the windpipe, just below the voice box,â€ says Dr. Christopher Fundakowski, head and neck cancer surgeon at Temple University Hospital, adding that as nodules grow they may begin to push on the windpipe and esophagus. “Most of the time this symptom alone does not mean you have cancer,â€ he says, adding that difficulty swallowing is relatively uncommon – the nodule has to be large enough and positioned in a way that it impedes the normal passage of food.
Still, Dr. Fundakowski suggests making an appointment with your doctor to take a swallow study, an exam that uses X-rays to try to identify abnormalities in the movement of food and liquids from the mouth into the esophagus. He also says an ultrasound or CT scan can help diagnose the problem.
3. I was short of breath. When I think back to all of the symptoms I ignored, trouble taking a deep breath or gasping for a breath takes the cake. Iâ€™ll never forget the feeling of not being able to breathe right, but because I have anxiety disorder, I counted to 10 and thought of a happy place, telling myself it was probably the onset of a panic attack.
A day later, when that didnâ€™t work, I went to a walk-in clinic. The doctor said it was allergies and prescribed an asthma inhaler. The symptom persisted, but it was around the time I was set to see my doctor for my yearly checkup.
â€œDifficulty breathing can be associated with both thyroid cancer and large thyroid goiters,” Dr. Fundakowski says. â€œIn the case of thyroid cancer, we worry about the tumor invading into the windpipe. However, this is rare.” He adds that occasionally thyroid cancers will grow fairly rapidly and squeeze or push on the windpipe, which can cause shortness of breath – particularly when active, lying down, or breathing quickly when anxious.
4. My voice changed. My voice became raspy and whispery, and my friends called it sexy, but it was another indicator I had a tumor in my neck. The thyroid gland sits below the larynx, so if a nodule is pressing on the voice box, it can cause hoarseness or voice changes, according to Dr. Sandeep Samant, chief of head and neck surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“An internal evaluation of the patient’s airway and movement of the vocal cords is mandatory if thereâ€™s a malignancy and surgery is required,” he says. However, it’s crucial not to panic – remember, hoarseness can be due to other reasons such as laryngitis.
5. My ear hurt. My weirdest symptom was mild ear pain. I had my last ear infection when I was seven years old, but suddenly, at age 34, I was taking Motrin and having my ear examined by a doctor.
Dr. Ezra Cohen, associate director or the Moores Cancer at UC San Diego Health, says this is due to the fact that the vagus nerve supplies sensation to the ear and also runs down the neck, next to the thyroid. â€œSometimes the signals can get crossed in the brain, and people feel ear pain when there is something going on in the neck,â€ says Dr. Cohen. The discomfort also could be due to an infection or inflammation, not cancer – nevertheless, a doctor should always examine ear pain, especially in an adult.
6. You might feel a lump. “One will only notice a lump if it is in the front part of the thyroid,â€ Dr. Thomas says. â€œThere shouldnâ€™t be any visible or palpable lumps in the neck, so if you feel a lump, see your physician.â€ He explains that lumps tend to be smooth and rubbery to the touch, but if itâ€™s hard, it needs medical attention. Still, it’s important to note that a majority of nodules are benign.