Tests for thyroid cancer
This page tells you about the tests you may have for thyroid cancer. You can find the following information
Tests for thyroid cancer
Usually you begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you and ask about your general health. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, and will examine your neck. They may ask you to go for a blood test to check your thyroid hormone levels, or send you for an ultrasound scan. Or they may refer you directly to a specialist at your local hospital.
At the hospital
The specialist will ask about your medical history and symptoms. They will then examine you by feeling your neck. You may have a chest X-ray to check your general health. If you haven't had them done already, you will have some blood tests to check your thyroid hormone and thyroid antibody levels. Your doctor may arrange a needle biopsy and an ultrasound scan. These tests will be in the outpatient department.
A needle biopsy is used to take a small amount of thyroid tissue, which a pathologist can then examine. This may help the doctor find out if a lump is cancer or not. The doctor puts a very thin needle into the lump and sucks out a small amount of fluid and cells. They send the biopsy sample to the laboratory to be looked at under a microscope. You may have the needle biopsy done under a local anaesthetic. Sometimes a surgical biopsy is needed. This means the doctor makes a small cut with a scalpel into the skin near the thyroid gland and removes a small piece of thyroid tissue. This is usually done under general anaesthetic.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the diagnosing thyroid cancer section.
Usually you begin by seeing your family doctor (GP) who will examine you and ask about your general health. They will ask you about your symptoms. This will include what the symptoms are, when you get them and whether anything you do makes them better or worse. Your doctor will then examine your neck. They may ask you to go for a blood test to check your thyroid hormone levels, or send you for an ultrasound scan. Or they may refer you directly to a specialist at your local hospital.
When you see a specialist, they will ask you about your medical history and symptoms. They will then examine you by feeling your neck.
If your GP has not already taken blood for thyroid tests, you will have some blood taken. The laboratory staff will check the blood for your thyroid hormone levels and to see if the blood contains particular proteins called thyroid antibodies. Then your specialist will arrange other tests in the outpatient department. You may be asked to have
An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of your body. This test can be used to look at your thyroid and neck. Your doctor is looking to see whether there are lots of lumps or just one. And whether the lumps are solid or filled with fluid (cysts). Of these, a single solid lump is most likely to be cancer. There is more about having an ultrasound in the cancer tests section.
A needle biopsy is used to take a small amount of thyroid tissue, which can then be looked at by a pathologist. This may help the doctors find out if a lump is cancer or not.
The doctor will feel for your thyroid lump, so that they can put the needle straight into the right place. They usually use an ultrasound scanner to help guide the needle in. You may have an injection of local anaesthetic to numb the area. Doctors don't always use anaesthetic because the needle to take the biopsy is very thin. If you are worried about not having local anaesthetic, talk to your doctor before the test. The doctor then puts the biopsy needle into the lump. Once the needle is in place, the doctor uses it to suck out a small amount of fluid and cells. They send this sample to the laboratory to be looked at under a microscope. Occasionally the first sample does not contain enough cells to make a definite diagnosis and you may need to have the test again.
Sometimes a surgical biopsy is needed. This could be because
- The needle biopsy could not be done for some reason
- A second needle biopsy did not get enough cells to make a diagnosis but your specialist still thinks that there is a problem
- It was difficult for the pathologist to be sure about the results of your needle biopsy (it can be particularly difficult to accurately judge thyroid cells)
You usually have a surgical biopsy under general anaesthetic. The doctor makes a small cut with a scalpel into the skin near the thyroid gland and removes a very small piece of thyroid tissue. You may have 1 or 2 stitches, or steristrips, to close the cut in your neck.
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