Parathyroid cancer is a very rare, relatively slow-growing cancer that develops in the parathyroid glands and can spread to the thyroid gland, neck muscles, and other organs. Parathyroid cancer makes up less than 1 percent of the total number of patients who have primary hyperparathyroidism.
The best chance of curing the disease is to catch it early and surgically remove all the cancer. Sometimes, repeated operations are necessary if the cancer grows back.
As the cancer develops, it interferes with the normal production of PTH, causing excessive amounts of this hormone to be excreted and, therefore, results in high levels of calcium in the blood. When the calcium levels in the blood are too high, the bones are at risk for absorbing too much calcium, which can lead to bone pain and osteoporosis (weakening of the bones).
This condition can also cause kidneys to retain too much calcium, causing kidney stones and kidney damage.
A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of getting a disease. Different diseases have different risk factors. Some risk factors can be controlled with lifestyle changes. Other risk factors cannot be changed.
Not much is known about the risk factors that may contribute to the formation of parathyroid cancer. It usually occurs in adults in their 50s and 60s, but there is no known correlation between lifestyle and developing this cancer. It affects men and women equally.
Some cases may have a genetic link.
Having a genetic risk factor does not mean that you will develop parathyroid cancer. Understanding your risk factors will help you determine, what, if any, precautions and possible screening options you should consider.
If you have parathyroid cancer, you may experience only minor symptoms because the calcium levels generally rise slowly enough for the body to adapt.
Some of the symptoms you may experience are:
- A small lump in the front of the neck. About 50 percent of patients present with a rock-hard lump in the neck.
- Pain in your back or side and blood in the urine (caused by kidney stones)
- Bone pain
- Broken bones
- Hoarseness (if cancer has spread to vocal cords or their nerves)
- Trouble swallowing
- Urinating more frequently
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Confusion and other neurological changes
Having one or more of the above symptoms does not mean that you have parathyroid cancer. Many of these symptoms may be caused by benign conditions of the parathyroid. If you think you may have this form of cancer, please contact your doctor.
Treatment for parathyroid cancer depends on whether the cancer is still localized to the parathyroid or if it has spread. If the cancer is still localized, surgical removal of the tumor is the best treatment. If the cancer has spread, surgical removal of the entire cancer may not be possible. In that case, the patient’s endocrinologist or oncologist may prescribe other therapies in place of surgery.
When surgery is an option, a parathyroidectomy is performed. Some lymph nodes may also need to be removed. In some cases, radiation treatments may follow surgery.
If the cancer has spread to other areas, the goal of surgery is to remove as much of the affected tissue as possible. Medication will be necessary both before and after the surgery to maintain normal calcium levels. Parathyroid cancer is slow growing, so repeat surgeries are possible to remove any recurring cancer.