Understanding Thyroid Cancer: A Guide for Families

Published on April 8, 2024

Updated on April 8, 2024

Thyroid cancer presents challenges not just for patients, but also for their families. My role is to be your , as a dedicated hospice registered nurse case manager, throughout the various stages of this disease. I'm here to equip you with the essential knowledge needed to provide compassionate care for your loved one. In this article, we will delve into what you should anticipate during the course of thyroid cancer, how to identify changes in your loved one's condition, and how to offer optimal care from the initial diagnosis to the end-of-life journey.

Understanding Thyroid Cancer

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that makes hormones to control your metabolism, growth, and development. It is located at the front of your neck, below your Adam's apple. Sometimes, abnormal cells grow in the thyroid and form a lump called a tumor. This is called thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer is more common in women than men, and it can happen to people of any age, but especially between 20 and 55 years old. Thyroid cancer is usually not extremely aggressive, and most people can be cured with proper treatment.

If you or someone you love has thyroid cancer, you might feel scared, sad, angry, or confused. These are normal emotions, and you are not alone. Many people have gone through the same experience and have found ways to cope and heal. The first step is to learn more about thyroid cancer, how it grows, and what you can do to fight it. This will help you make informed decisions and feel more confident and hopeful.

Stages and Progression

Thyroid cancer has different stages that tell you how big the tumor is and how far it has spread to other parts of your body. Knowing the stage of your cancer helps your doctor choose the best treatment for you. The stages of thyroid cancer are:

  • Stage I: The tumor is small and only in the thyroid. It has not spread to any other place. This is the earliest stage of thyroid cancer, and it has the best chance of being cured.
  • Stage II: The tumor is bigger and may have grown outside the thyroid. It still has not spread to any other place. This is still an early stage of thyroid cancer, and it can be treated effectively.
  • Stage III: The tumor has spread to the lymph nodes near the thyroid. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped organs that help your body fight . When cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it means it has reached the bloodstream and can travel to other parts of your body. This is a more advanced stage of thyroid cancer, and it requires more intensive treatment.
  • Stage IV: The tumor has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs or bones. This is the most advanced stage of thyroid cancer, and it is harder to treat. However, there are still options to slow down the growth of the cancer and improve your quality of life.

The progression of thyroid cancer depends on many factors, such as the type of thyroid cancer, the size and location of the tumor, your age and health, and the treatment you receive. Some types of thyroid cancer grow very slowly and may not cause any symptoms for a long time. Other types of thyroid cancer grow faster and may cause problems with breathing, swallowing, or speaking. The sooner you find out you have thyroid cancer, the better your chances of getting rid of it.

Treatment Options

There are different ways to treat thyroid cancer, depending on the stage and type of your cancer. Your doctor will work with you to find the best option for you. Some of the common treatments are:

  • Surgery: This is when the doctor removes part or all of the thyroid and any affected lymph nodes. This is the main treatment for most types of thyroid cancer. You may need to take thyroid hormone pills after surgery to replace the hormones your thyroid used to make.
  • Radiation therapy: This is when the doctor uses high-energy rays or radioactive substances to kill the cancer cells or stop them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy for thyroid cancer: external beam radiation and radioactive iodine. External beam radiation is when a machine outside your body aims the rays at the tumor. Radioactive iodine is when you swallow a pill or liquid that contains a small amount of radioactive iodine. The iodine goes to your thyroid and destroys any remaining cancer cells. You may need to stay away from other people for a few days after taking radioactive iodine, because you will be slightly radioactive.
  • Targeted therapy: This is when the doctor uses drugs that target specific features of the cancer cells, such as genes or proteins. These drugs can stop the cancer cells from growing, dividing, or spreading. They are usually given as pills or injections. Targeted therapy is used for advanced thyroid cancer that does not respond to other treatments.

These treatments can have , such as fatigue, nausea, hair loss, dry mouth, or skin problems. Your doctor will monitor your condition and help you manage any . You may also need regular blood tests and scans to check how well the treatment is working and if the cancer has come back.

Living with Thyroid Cancer

Having thyroid cancer can affect your physical, emotional, and social well-being. You may have to deal with changes in your appearance, voice, or energy level. You may also have to cope with stress, , depression, or fear. It is important to take care of yourself and get support from your family, friends, and health care team. Here are some tips to help you live well with thyroid cancer:

  • Eat a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Avoid foods that are high in salt, fat, or sugar. Drink plenty of water and limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Exercise regularly if your doctor says it is safe. Physical activity can help you stay fit, reduce stress, and improve your mood. Choose activities that you enjoy and that suit your level of fitness. You can start with gentle exercises, such as walking, stretching, or yoga, and gradually increase the intensity and duration.
  • Get enough rest and sleep. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Avoid naps during the day unless you are very tired. Make your bedroom comfortable, dark, and quiet. Avoid using your phone, computer, or TV before bed. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about practical solutions.
  • Manage your stress. Stress can make your symptoms worse and affect your immune system. Find healthy ways to cope with stress, such as meditation, breathing exercises, music, hobbies, or counseling. Avoid things that trigger your stress, such as negative people, news, or situations. Learn to say no to extra demands and ask for help when you need it.
  • Seek support. You don't have to go through this alone. Reach out to your family, friends, or other people who have thyroid cancer. They can offer you emotional, practical, or financial assistance. You can also join a support group, online community, or educational program to share your feelings, experiences, and information with others who understand what you are going through. You can find local or national resources for thyroid cancer patients and caregivers on the internet or through your doctor.

Observing Changes in Your Loved One

When someone has thyroid cancer, they may go through some changes that affect how they look, feel, or act. As a caregiver, you can help your loved one by paying attention to these changes and letting them know you care. Some of the changes you might notice are:

  • Changes in voice: Your loved one's voice may sound different than before. They may sound hoarse, raspy, or weak. This is because thyroid cancer can damage the nerves that control the vocal cords, which are the muscles that make sound in your throat. If your loved one has trouble speaking, you can encourage them to rest their voice, drink plenty of fluids, and use a humidifier or vaporizer to moisten the air. You can also help them communicate by using gestures, writing, or devices such as a microphone or speakerphone.
  • Difficulty swallowing: Your loved one may find it hard to swallow food or liquids. This is because a growing tumor can press on the esophagus, which is the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. If your loved one has trouble swallowing, you can help them by cutting their food into small pieces, adding sauces or gravies to make it moist, and avoiding dry or sticky foods. You can also remind them to chew well, take small bites, and sip water between bites. You can also ask their doctor about medicines or exercises that can make swallowing easier.
  • Neck lumps: You may see or feel lumps or swelling in your loved one's neck. This is because thyroid cancer can cause the thyroid gland to enlarge or spread to the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped organs that help your body fight . If your loved one has neck lumps, you can help them by gently massaging their neck, applying warm or cold compresses, and adjusting their clothing or jewelry to make them more comfortable. You can also ask their doctor about medicines or treatments that can reduce the swelling.
  • Fatigue: Your loved one may feel tired more often. This is because thyroid cancer can affect the hormones that regulate your energy, metabolism, and mood. If your loved one has fatigue, you can help them by planning their activities according to their energy level, encouraging them to take short naps or breaks, and helping them with daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, or shopping. You can also help them stay active by doing gentle exercises, such as walking, stretching, or yoga, with them.
  • Weight changes: Your loved one may lose or gain weight without trying. This is because thyroid cancer can affect the hormones that control your appetite, digestion, and body temperature. If your loved one has weight changes, you can help them by providing them with healthy and balanced meals and snacks, monitoring their weight and temperature regularly, and helping them dress appropriately for the weather. You can also ask their doctor about medicines or supplements that can help them maintain a healthy weight.

These changes can be hard to deal with, but you don't have to do it alone. You can talk to your loved one and their medical team about any concerns you have and get the support you need. By observing and caring for your loved one, you can make a positive difference in their journey with thyroid cancer.

Providing Care and Support

When someone you love has thyroid cancer, you may want to do everything you can to help them. Caring for them can be rewarding, but also challenging. You need to take care of their physical and emotional needs, as well as your own. Here are some ways you can provide care and support to your loved one:

  • Medication management: Your loved one may need to take different medications to treat their thyroid cancer and its side effects. These medications may have specific instructions, such as when to take them, how much to take, and what to avoid. You can help your loved one by keeping a list of their medications, reminding them to take them on time, and watching for any side effects. You can also help them store their medications safely and dispose of them properly. If you have any questions or concerns about their medications, you can ask their doctor or pharmacist.
  • Emotional support: Your loved one may have many feelings about their thyroid cancer, such as fear, anger, sadness, or loneliness. They may also have mood swings or changes in their personality. You can help your loved one by being there for them, listening to them, and validating their feelings. You can also help them cope by encouraging them to express their emotions, such as through talking, writing, or art. You can also help them find positive ways to deal with stress, such as meditation, relaxation, or humor. You can also help them stay hopeful by focusing on their strengths, goals, and achievements.
  • Assist with appointments: Your loved one may have to visit different doctors and specialists for their thyroid cancer treatment and follow-up. You can help your loved one by going with them to their appointments, driving them, or arranging transportation. You can also help them prepare for their appointments by making a list of questions to ask, bringing their medical records, and taking notes. You can also help them understand their treatment plan, follow their doctor's advice, and keep track of their progress. You can also help them communicate with their health care team and advocate for their needs and preferences.
  • Nutrition: Your loved one may have changes in their appetite, taste, or digestion because of their thyroid cancer or its treatment. You can help your loved one by providing them with healthy and balanced meals and snacks that meet their nutritional needs and preferences. You can also help them by avoiding foods that may irritate their throat, such as spicy, acidic, or hard foods. You can also help them by making sure they drink enough water and fluids to stay hydrated and prevent dry mouth. You can also help them by encouraging them to eat slowly, chew well, and use a straw if needed. You can also ask their doctor or dietitian for more tips and advice on nutrition.

These are some of the ways you can provide care and support to your loved one with thyroid cancer. Remember that you are not alone, and you can also get help and support from other people, such as family, friends, or professionals. By caring for yourself and your loved one, you can make a positive difference in their journey with thyroid cancer.

Providing End-of-Life Care

There may come a time when the cancer treatment is no longer working, and your loved one is nearing the end of life. This can be an exceedingly difficult and emotional time for both of you. You may feel sad, angry, scared, or numb. You may also have many questions and concerns about what will happen and how to help your loved one. This section will give tips on providing end-of-life care and ensuring comfort and peace for your loved one.

Hospice Care: Hospice care focuses on making your loved one as comfortable as possible in the last months, weeks, or days of life. Hospice care does not try to cure cancer or prolong life but rather to relieve pain and other symptoms, such as nausea, , or . Hospice care also provides emotional and spiritual support for your loved one and family. Hospice care can be given at home, in a hospital, or at a hospice facility, depending on your loved one's needs and preferences. You can help your loved one by:

  • Talking to the doctor about hospice care. You can ask the doctor if your loved one is eligible for hospice care and when it might be appropriate to start. You can also ask the doctor for a referral to a hospice program in your area. You can find more information about hospice care from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization or the American Cancer Society.
  • Choosing a hospice program that meets your loved one's needs. You can compare hospice programs based on their services, staff, costs, and location. You can also visit the hospice facility or talk to the staff to understand their philosophy and approach. You can ask questions such as:
    • What services do you offer, and how often?
    • Who will be part of the hospice team, and how will they communicate with us?
    • How do you manage pain and other symptoms?
    • How do you provide emotional and spiritual support?
    • How do you involve the family in the care plan?
    • How do you handle emergencies or after-hours calls?
    • How do you coordinate with other healthcare providers?
    • How do you bill for your services, and what insurance do you accept?
  • Working with the hospice team to create a care plan. The hospice team will include a doctor, a nurse, a , a , a counselor, a home health aide, and a . They will work with you and your loved one to create a care plan that reflects your loved one's wishes and goals. The care plan will include details such as:
    • What medications and treatments will your loved one receive, and how will they be administered?
    • What equipment and supplies will your loved one need, and how will they be delivered?
    • What comfort measures and complementary therapies will your loved one use, such as massage, music, or aromatherapy?
    • What emotional and spiritual support will your loved one and your family receive, such as counseling, prayer, or rituals?
    • What legal and financial matters must your loved one and your family address, such as advance directives, wills, or funeral arrangements?
  • Providing care and support for your loved one. You will be the primary caregiver for your loved one, but you will not be alone. The hospice team will visit your loved one regularly and be available by phone 24/7. They will teach you how to care for your loved one, such as giving medications, changing dressings, or using equipment. They will also monitor your loved one's condition and adjust the care plan. You can also ask for help from other family members, friends, or volunteers. You can help your loved one by:
    • Giving them their medications and treatments as prescribed and on time. Do not skip or change the doses without consulting the hospice team.
    • Keeping track of their pain and symptom level and how well the medications and treatments are working. Report any changes or concerns to the hospice team.
    • Providing comfort measures, such as massage, heat, ice, or distraction. You can also help them find a comfortable position, use pillows or cushions, or adjust the lighting or temperature in the room.
    • Being there for them emotionally and spiritually. Listen to their feelings and concerns without judging or interrupting. Try to be positive and hopeful but also realistic and honest. Share your feelings and fears with your loved one or someone you trust. You can also seek professional help from a counselor or therapist if you or your loved one are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious.

Emotional Well-being: The end of life can be a time of mixed emotions for your loved one and family. Your loved one may feel grateful, peaceful, or relieved but also sad, angry, or scared. They may also have regrets, unfinished business, or unfulfilled dreams. You can help your loved one by:

  • Help them find meaning and purpose in their lives. You can help them reflect on their life story, achievements, values, and legacy. You can also help them express their gratitude, forgiveness, or love to those who matter to them. You can use different methods such as writing, drawing, recording, or making a scrapbook.
  • Helping them cope with their fears and worries. You can help them identify and address their sources of fear and worry, such as pain, suffering, loss of control, or the unknown. You can also help them find ways to reduce their anxiety and worry, such as talking, praying, meditating, or breathing. You can also help them find comfort and hope in their , beliefs, or philosophy.
  • Helping them create cherished memories. You can help them make the most of their time with their loved ones. You can help them plan and enjoy special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. You can also help them create meaningful gifts, such as letters, videos, or jewelry, for their loved ones to remember them.

Conclusion

Thyroid cancer is a disease that affects the thyroid gland, which is a small organ in your neck that makes hormones. Thyroid cancer can cause different symptoms and problems, depending on how big and how far it has spread. Thyroid cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation, or drugs, but sometimes it can come back or get worse.

If someone you love has thyroid cancer, you may feel many emotions, such as worry, sadness, or anger. You may also have many questions, such as what will happen next, how to help them, or how to take care of yourself. You are not alone on this journey. There are many people and resources that can help you and your loved one.

The most important thing you can do is to be there for your loved one. You can show them that you care by listening to them, supporting them, and helping them with their needs. You can also learn more about thyroid cancer, its stages, and its treatments, so you can understand what your loved one is going through and what to expect. You can also prepare for the end of life if your loved one's cancer is not curable. You can help them make their wishes known, plan their funeral, and say goodbye.

Caring for a loved one with thyroid cancer can be hard, but it can also be rewarding. You can make a difference in their life by giving them comfort, hope, and love. You can also grow closer to them and cherish the time you have together. You can also take care of yourself and get the support you need. By doing these things, you can cope with the challenges and joys of caring for a loved one with thyroid cancer.

Resources

Caring for a Loved One with Terminal Cancer: A Guide for Families

Understanding Cancer Metastasis: A Guide for Patients and Families

American Cancer Society Thyroid Cancer

What are the symptoms of thyroid cancer?

Top 30 FAQs About Hospice: Everything You Need to Know

Understanding Hospice Care: Is it Too Early to Start Hospice?

What's the process of getting your loved one on hospice service?

Picking a hospice agency to provide hospice services

Medicare — Find and compare hospice providers

The Importance of Caregiver Journaling

Reporting Changes in Condition to Hospice

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The Caregiver's Guide to Cancer: Compassionate Advice for Caring for You and Your Loved One (Caregiver's Guides)

Cancer Caregiving A-to-Z: An At-Home Guide for Patients and Families

Peace in the Face of Cancer

A Handbook of caring for someone with cancer: Instructions for the Support Person or Caregiver Helping a Loved One Survive Cancer

Co-Surviving Cancer: The Guide for Caregivers, Family Members and Friends of Adults Living with Cancer

Things I Wish I'd Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out

Eldercare Locator: a nationwide service that connects older Americans and their caregivers with trustworthy local support resources

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My Aging Parent Needs Help!: 7-Step Guide to Caregiving with No Regrets, More Compassion, and Going from Overwhelmed to Organized [Includes Tips for Caregiver Burnout]

Take Back Your Life: A Caregiver's Guide to Finding Freedom in the Midst of Overwhelm

The Conscious Caregiver: A Mindful Approach to Caring for Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself

Dear Caregiver, It's Your Life Too: 71 Self-Care Tips To Manage Stress, Avoid Burnout, And Find Joy Again While Caring For A Loved One

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved

The Art of Dying

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying

Providing Comfort During the Last Days of Life with Barbara Karnes RN (YouTube Video)

Preparing the patient, family, and caregivers for a “Good Death.”

Velocity of Changes in Condition as an Indicator of Approaching Death (often helpful to answer how soon? or when?)

The Dying Process and the End of Life

The Last Hours of Life

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Gone from My Sight: The Dying Experience

The Eleventh Hour: A Caring Guideline for the Hours to Minutes Before Death

By Your Side, A Guide for Caring for the Dying at Home

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