Types of cancer

Parathyroid

Parathyroid glands are the four small glands on the thyroid. Cancer in this region is usually benign and uncommon and malignant tumors are rare. Bone pain, kidney problems, loss of appetite, intense thirst and tiredness are symptoms. Find out more.
3 min read
per: Grupo Oncoclínicas
Parathyroid
Parathyroid glands are the four small glands of the thyroid. Cancer in this region is usually benign and uncommon and malignant tumors are rare.

What is parathyroid cancer

Parathyroid glands are four small glands, located at the back of the thyroid, whose function is to regulate calcium levels in the body. Tumors in the parathyroid glands are rare and mostly benign (such as adenomas). Parathyroid carcinomas – cancers – are very rare. Usually, the suspicion of parathyroid cancer arises because the tumors cause hypercalcemia (increased amount of calcium in the blood), which makes the patient feel tired, weak and drowsy. Rising calcium occurs because cancer cells produce an excess of a hormone called PTH (hyperparathyroidism), which pulls calcium from the bone into the blood.

Symptoms and signs of parathyroid cancer

In addition to the symptoms described above, others may be found:

  • Pain, especially bone pain;
  • Kidney problems, including kidney stones;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Intense thirst;
  • Tiredness;
  • Frequent urination;
  • Muscle weakness;
  • Lump on the neck.

Diagnosis of parathyroid cancer

The patient’s symptoms, blood levels of calcium and parathyroid hormone are factors taken into consideration during the diagnostic investigation. Parathyroid cancer can be difficult to detect because the cells of benign tumors are similar to the cells of the disease.

After blood tests are done and hyperparathyroidism is diagnosed, imaging tests may be ordered to find out which of the parathyroid glands is overactive.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

Imaging tests – ultrasound, CT scan or MRI help define tumor size and location;

Scintigraphy – this can show if a parathyroid gland is overactive. The procedure includes injecting a radioactive substance into the blood through a vein in the arm, which ends up accumulating in the overactive tissue (the cancer itself). It can also help find lesions in other parts of the body (metastases);

Biopsy – upon evidence of a parathyroid tumor, a biopsy can be done. In the procedure, small pieces of tissue are removed to be sent to a pathologist, who will confirm or not a cancer diagnosis. These samples can be removed through a needle and examined under a microscope to see if cancerous cells are present.

Treatment

Treatment options depend on the test results, the stage of cancer, the possibility of controlling blood calcium levels, and whether the patient is physically able to undergo surgery.

If this is possible, the main treatment is in fact surgery, which aims to remove the entire tumor. Before surgery, the patient may need to take medication to control the amount of calcium in the blood until the procedure is done.

In some cases it may be necessary to undergo radiotherapy (a procedure that kills cancer cells with radiation) or chemotherapy (a treatment that uses oral or intravenous drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing them or by preventing them from dividing).

Prevention

There is no consensus on the risk factors that are specifically related to developing adenomas or parathyroid cancer; anyone can have such a tumor. However, the risk is higher when the person:

  • Has had radiation therapy to the neck;
  • Has been exposed to high doses of radiation from nuclear power plants;
  • Has a family history of parathyroid tumors;
  • Has certain inherited diseases, such as isolated familial hyperparathyroidism or multiple endocrine neoplasia types 1 or 2.

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