What Is a Thyroid Cancer Lump?

Thyroid nodules can develop on the neck, and rarely, they can be cancerous.

Thyroid cancer affects about 45,000 people annually. Thyroid cancer symptoms include trouble breathing or swallowing and having a hoarse voice. Still, one of the common signs of thyroid cancer is swelling or a hard lump, or thyroid nodule, in the neck area.

Thyroid nodules are common, and some evidence suggests that 5% to 7% of adults have one. Though, autopsy data indicates that nearly half of the people studied have thyroid nodules bigger than one centimeter in diameter.

Thyroid nodules may resemble congenital and inflammatory neck masses and non-thyroid neoplastic disorders. Less than 6.5% of thyroid nodules are malignant. More than 90% of thyroid nodules are benign, or not harmful.

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What Are Thyroid Lumps?

A lump on the thyroid is called a thyroid nodule. In most cases, thyroid nodules won't have symptoms. In fact, there are only a few cases where a person notices an enlarged thyroid nodule.

The bigger the thyroid nodules are, the more issues they may cause. Often, symptoms include hoarseness and neck pain. Thyroid nodules can lead to thyroid glands that are visible in the neck, known as goiters.

What Causes Thyroid Lumps?

Thyroid nodules may be fluid-filled cysts or cysts containing colloid, a thyroid hormone. Thyroid nodules might be solid with little fluid or colloid. Some solid nodules are benign, while others are cancerous.

Risk Factors

Only about 10%–15% of thyroid nodules are cancerous. Having thyroid nodules is not a risk factor for thyroid cancer

Instead, factors that increase the risk of thyroid cancer include:

  • A family history of thyroid cancer 
  • Previous head or neck radiation exposure
  • Hard nodules or nodules stuck to other structures
  • Noticeable voice changes
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Low or high amounts of dietary iodine

Cancerous thyroid nodules are more common in women than men and people younger than 20 or older than 70.

Some risk factors are modifiable, like radiation exposure, having overweight or obesity, and dietary iodine. Still, how much those risk factors—and the ones that cannot be changed—play a role in developing thyroid cancer is hard to figure out.

Healthcare providers aren't sure what causes thyroid cancer, so prevention may be unlikely.  

How To Tell if Thyroid Lumps Are Cancerous

You cannot figure out if thyroid nodules are cancerous only by feeling them yourself or seeing that they are enlarged. Instead, a healthcare provider can perform tests such as:

  • Fine needle aspiration: A healthcare provider uses a small needle to obtain a thyroid gland tissue sample for microscopic examination.
  • Ultrasound: This is a test that creates a picture of your thyroid and the nodule using sound waves.
  • Thyroid scan: This involves an injection of radioactive iodine that makes the thyroid light up to create a picture.

Those tests can tell healthcare providers more about the thyroid nodule's consistency and size.

A Quick Review

Having a lump in the thyroid gland, or a thyroid nodule, is a common sign of thyroid cancer. Thyroid nodules are likely to be cancerous due to factors like a family history of thyroid cancer or noticeable changes in a person's voice.

Most thyroid nodules are not thyroid cancer lumps, and having a thyroid nodule is not a risk factor for thyroid cancer. Only healthcare providers can determine if thyroid nodules are cancerous. Consult a healthcare provider if you have concerns about your thyroid health.

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6 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thyroid cancer.

  2. American Cancer Society. What is thyroid cancer?.

  3. Zamora EA, Khare S, Cassaro S. Thyroid nodule. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2023.

  4. MedlinePlus. Thyroid nodule.

  5. American Cancer Society. Thyroid cancer risk factors.

  6. American Academy of Family Physicians. Thyroid nodules.

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