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Learn Everything about Your Thyroid Gland

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

By Dr. Christa L. Jillard, M.D.

You may not know, but there’s a butterfly in your neck.  It’s often pink, sometimes with hues of purple.  Sometimes it’s small, and sometimes it’s bigger than a bird’s nest sitting up in a tree.

It typically sits as a quiet spectator in front of your windpipe, just above your collarbones.  It flutters with blood flowing through it as fast as it flows through your heart.  Unbeknownst to you, it has your undivided attention—your metabolism, your energy levels, are at its disposal. 

This butterfly is your thyroid. 

What is a Thyroid?

A gland so often overlooked, the thyroid and its hormones virtually affect every other organ in the body.  If it overworks (hyperthyroidism), you lose weight, you can’t sleep, your heart races, and sometimes your eyesight is disrupted.  If it underworks (hypothyroidism), you gain weight, you’re tired often, and if left untreated—you can succumb to a coma. 

But the thyroid can hold you captive in other ways as well, in ways that may not affect the thyroid hormone function at all.  It can grow or change in shape, often by forming thyroid growths called nodules.  Most of these nodules do not cause symptoms and do not have cancer.  But, a small percentage of them unfortunately do.

Risks of Thyroid Cancer

Genetics, family history, and radiation exposure can increase the chances that this important gland can harbor cancer.  Family history and iodine deficiency can increase the chances that this gland enlarges significantly (thyroid goiter), obstructs your esophagus or windpipe and negatively affects your swallowing and sometimes breathing.

As an endocrine surgeon, I have the privilege of holding this butterfly in my hands when medication cannot tame it, when thyroid cancer is present, and when thyroid goiters are affecting a person’s quality of life.  The incidence of thyroid cancer in particular, is in fact rising; however, the chance of this cancer affecting a patient’s lifespan remains very low, in part to the success rate of treatment with surgery. 

Thyroid removal (thyroidectomy) can range from half of the gland being removed (thyroid lobectomy), to the entire gland removal plus all of the lymph nodes on the side of your neck (modified radical neck dissection).  The surgery implemented depends on the extent of disease. Importantly, thyroid surgery is very successful when performed in the hands of an experienced surgeon who performs these surgeries regularly. 

How SouthCoast Health Can Help Your Thyroid

So what’s there to do with this butterfly gland in your neck?  What determines whether you and I meet someday? 

Well, your primary care doctor, endocrinologist, or ob/gyn is keeping a close eye on you.  Your thyroid hormone levels are being checked, and that doctor physically examines your thyroid at each annual visit.  In the event that anything is found that might need surgery, you are then referred to my professional world of endocrine surgery.  Surgery-- it can be scary, I understand.  But in the event that this happens, you now know just a little bit more about that thyroid gland.

Knowledge is power, awareness is key.  That butterfly in your neck—it’s not so incognito after all.   

Dr. Jillard is an endocrine surgery specialist at Southcoast Health. If you have any remaining questions about your thyroid, call to schedule an appointment with her at 912-691-3600.


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