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Screening

Read about what screening is and the tests people at high risk of thyroid cancer can have.

At the moment, there’s no general screening programme in the UK for thyroid cancer. But if you have a high risk of thyroid cancer, your doctor might refer you to a genetic screening clinic for advice.  

What screening is

Screening means testing people for early stages of an illness before they have any symptoms. For screening to be useful the tests:

  • must be reliable at picking up the illness
  • must be simple and quick
  • overall must do more good than harm to people taking part

If you have a high risk of thyroid cancer

Thyroid cancer is rare. But some people may have inherited an abnormal gene (RET proto oncogene) so are at higher risk of developing medullary thyroid cancer. You can be screened for the abnormal gene. If you have a:

  • relative diagnosed with thyroid cancer
  • very close relative whose been diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer

This gene is sometimes linked to a syndrome MEN2. People with MEN2 have a higher risk of some types of cancer of hormone producing glands, including thyroid cancer. Your GP can refer you to a family cancer clinic or genetic screening clinic for advice.

Screening for the faulty gene

Not everyone who’s offered a blood test for a faulty gene wants it done. It’s worth taking time to think carefully about this decision.

If you’re referred for screening, you’ll be asked about your family medical history. This will be used to decide whether the abnormal gene is likely to run in your family. If it is likely, the clinic staff will offer you a blood test to look for the faulty gene. The implications of having the blood test will be explained to you beforehand. These include:

  • how you’ll feel if the test is positive
  • what can be done if the test is positive
  • whether a positive test affects your ability to get life insurance or a mortgage

If you have a faulty gene

Your treatment depends on the type of inherited abnormal gene you have. If you have an abnormal gene, you may be offered one or more of the following options:

  • regular thyroid scans to make sure that if cancer develops, it’s diagnosed and treated as early as possible
  • regular blood tests for the hormone calcitonin
  • surgery to remove your thyroid to prevent a cancer developing

Calcitonin blood tests screen family members where there’s a known risk of medullary thyroid cancer.

Removing the thyroid (thyroidectomy) is usually done if you’ve a MEN 2B gene abnormality. If this gene runs in your family, it’s usual to try to pick it up in the children. Medullary thyroid cancer usually develops at a young age in MEN 2B carriers.

Last reviewed: 
21 Oct 2014
  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (7th edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer
    Springer, 2010

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