Thyroid Cancer FAQs with Dr. Mike Natter,
Millennial Endocrinologist

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

Two weeks after celebrating his 9th birthday, Mike Natter, MD, woke up in a strange hospital bed where a warm and empathetic pediatric endocrinologist explained to him that he had been rushed to the emergency room and had Type 1 Diabetes. That was 28 birthdays ago.

Mike Natter, MD, is an endocrinologist at NYU Langone, who humanizes medicine using his creativity and talent for visual art to teach, explain, and practice the art of medicine. He was awarded the Endocrine Fellow of the year in 2021 and 2022, as well as Fellow’s Teaching Award in 2022.

Now Natter, an endocrinologist and fellow millennial at age 37, treats patients whose
endocrine systems (our body’s system of glands that produce and release hormones) have gone awry in different ways.

“Living with a chronic condition through childhood shaped me quite a bit and my experience with the doctor who diagnosed me deeply impacted me. While my diagnosis sparked an interest in medicine and endocrinology, I found myself more naturally drawn to visual art and not necessarily the hard sciences required for a career in medicine,” said Natter, who is a talented
artist.

But in time he realized there was more art in medicine than he thought, and he cherished the opportunity to help others facing his and similar conditions.

About Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is the most common cancer of the endocrine system, Natter tells me. Often, there are no obvious thyroid cancer symptoms though, so it can be hard to pick up.

The reason: usually thyroid cancer does not alter the thyroid gland’s functionality so the typical “thyroid symptoms” you would experience having under or overactive thyroid disease will not be present in thyroid cancer patients, he said.

That said, in people who do have signs and symptoms that appear, there are some classic ones to look for.

What are the symptoms of cancer in your thyroid?

According to one of our country’s most premiere cancer centers, MD Anderson Cancer Center at University of Texas, the most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a painless lump in the neck.

However, thyroid cancer symptoms in women can be hard to recognize because they could easily be thought to be caused by other things given our busy, sometimes stressful lifestyles as millennials. These include changes in your hair, skin, and nails, with the most common thyroid cancer symptom in women being fatigue. (How many of us feel fatigued from daily life already, right?)

Other symptoms that can affect both women and men are:

  • rapid growth of a neck mass
  • hoarseness of the voice
  • difficulty breathing
  • trouble swallowing
  • increase in bowel movements or diarrhea several times a day (in medullary thyroid cancer

Why is thyroid cancer increasing in millennials or is it?

“While more thyroid cancers are being diagnosed than they have in the past, it is important to
note that this may be in part due to that fact that we are screening more people, there is more
awareness and also we are living in the age of higher use of ultrasound (and other imaging techniques),”
Natter said.

Thyroid cancer age at diagnosis is younger statistically than for other types of cancer. It’s also a cancer that typically affects women three times more than it does men, Natter pointed out.

In many patients what’s happening is that they will have a nodule found on their thyroid gland when they are in the midst of having imaging on their body for another reason. Then, because the nodule is found, it in turn gets worked up, so that your doctor makes sure everything is okay.
Then if it’s not, that incidental nodule, you did not know you had, gets diagnosed as thyroid cancer.

“So, it’s possible that the actual rates of thyroid cancer are not necessarily higher, but our
detection is more sensitive now,” Natter said.

Key Things Dr. Mike Natter Thinks Millennials Should Know about Thyroid Cancer and Should Talk with Their Doctors About

Dr. Natter holding some of the many pieces of art he has created. View more of his medical illustrations here.

Unfortunately, there are no known modifiable risk factors (things we can make changes in our lives to improve or risk) for thyroid cancer, unlike not smoking in lung cancer.

However, we know that exposure to radiation can increase the risk of thyroid cancer (which is why the dentist will cover your neck with lead to protect your thyroid from the X-rays), Natter said.

When you go to the doctor, it’s important to tell your doctor about your family history, especially if you have a strong family history of thyroid cancer.

Also, if you notice any lumps, bumps, or growth in your throat or neck, it’s important to tell your doctor about these symptoms right away and discuss your concerns, he said.

“While the word ‘cancer’ is scary, many common forms of thyroid cancer have excellent prognosis and are treatable,” Natter said.

To get the answers to millennials’ top questions about a thyroid cancer diagnosis and survivorship, check out our first blog featuring Dr. Natter here.

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