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Supportive care for thyroid cancer
Supportive care helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of thyroid cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.
Recovering from thyroid cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person. Recovery depends on the stage of the cancer, the type of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects. A person who has been treated for thyroid cancer may have concerns about the following.
Hypothyroidism means there is not enough thyroid hormone in the blood to keep the body working properly. It develops when all or part of the thyroid is removed or thyroid tissue is destroyed by radioactive iodine therapy.
Hypothyroidism can cause:
- dry skin
- weight gain
- feeling cold
Hypothyroidism is treated with thyroid hormone therapy using levothyroxine (Synthroid, Eltroxin). This drug replaces thyroxine, which is the hormone normally made by the thyroid. You will need to take it for the rest of your life. It may take some time to find the right dose for you so you don’t have symptoms of hypothyroidism. Doctors will adjust the dose of levothyroxine based on blood test results.
Radioactive iodine therapy can make the salivary glands inflamed, which may lower the amount of saliva, or spit, they make. This can lead to dry mouth and sometimes changes in taste. It may take several weeks after treatment for dry mouth to get better. Some people may have long-term problems with dry mouth.
To help keep your mouth moist, drink water and other fluids often throughout the day. Some people use an artificial saliva product to help moisten the mouth. Ask your healthcare team to recommend a product.
Voice changes may happen after surgery for thyroid cancer. The larynx, or voice box, is close to the thyroid. The larynx and nerves in the throat may be damaged during surgery to remove the thyroid. This can cause the voice to sound different. Your voice may be hoarse and sound breathy. You may have problems making high-pitched sounds. A hoarse voice usually gets better in a few weeks after surgery. Some people find that it takes longer for their singing voice to get better. In rare cases, there can be permanent changes to the voice.
If the voice changes seem to be a long-term problem, speech therapy can help improve the quality of your voice.
Find out more about speech therapy.
Hypocalcemia means there is not enough calcium in the blood. It can happen when the parathyroid glands are removed or damaged during surgery.
The parathyroid glands make a hormone called parathyroid hormone (PTH). It helps control the level of calcium in the blood. When blood calcium levels are low, the parathyroid gland releases PTH. If the parathyroid glands have been removed or damaged, they will not be able to make PTH (called hypoparathyroidism).
Hypocalcemia can cause:
- muscle cramps in the back and legs
- dry skin and brittle nails
- tingling and numbness in the lips, tongue, fingers and feet
- confusion, memory loss and depression
- abnormal heartbeat
Hypocalcemia is usually treated with calcium pills (called supplements). Sometimes vitamin D pills are given as well. How long calcium and vitamin D supplements are taken depends on when or if the parathyroid glands recover and function normally. Some people need to take these supplements for the rest of their life so they don’t have symptoms of hypocalcemia.
Questions to ask about supportive care
To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about supportive care.
A gland that makes saliva (spit), which helps to stimulate digestion.
There are 3 sets of major salivary glands. The parotid glands are in front on the ears. The submandibular glands are under the lower jaw. The sublingual glands are under the tongue.
One of 4 small glands attached to the thyroid in the neck that make and release the parathyroid hormone, which helps regulate calcium, magnesium and phosphorus levels in the blood.
I’m extremely grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society for funding my research with an Innovation Grant.
Together we can reduce the burden of cancer
Last year, we only had the resources available to fund 40% of high-priority research projects. Imagine the impact we could have if we were able to fund 100%.