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Definition:

Parathyroid cancer is a cancerous (malignant ) growth in a parathyroid gland.



Alternative Names:

Parathyroid carcinoma



Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

The parathyroid glands are responsible for controlling the calcium in the body. There are four parathyroid glands, two on each lobe of the thyroid gland. They are located at the base of the neck.

Parathyroid cancer is an extremely rare type of cancer. Men and women are equally affected. It usually occurs in people older than 30.

The cause of parathyroid cancer is unknown. People with multiple endocrine neoplasia type I have an increased risk for this disease. People who had head or neck radiation may also be at increased risk. Such radiation exposure, however, is more often connected with thyroid cancer.



Symptoms:

Symptoms of parathyroid cancer are primarily caused by high levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia ), and may affect various parts of the body. They include:

It is important to note that primary hyperparathyroidism is a much more common cause of these symptoms, and most patients with these symptoms do not have parathyroid cancer.



Signs and tests:

Parathyroid cancer is extremely hard to diagnose.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about your medical history.

In about half of all cases, feeling the neck with the hands (palpation ) can reveal a cancerous parathyroid tumor.

Cancerous parathyroid tumors tend to produce very high amounts of parathyroid hormone (PTH). Tests may include:

  • Serum calcium (levels higher than 14 mg/dL are suspicious)
  • Serum PTH (levels that are more than twice than normal may indicate cancer)

Before surgery, you will undergo a special radioactive scan of the parathyroid glands. The scan is called the sestamibi scan. You may also have a neck ultrasound .



Treatment:

The following treatments may be used to correct hypercalcemia due to parathyroid cancer:

  • A drug that lowers levels of calcium in the blood (gallium nitrate)
  • A natural hormone produced by the body that helps control calcium levels (calcitonin)
  • Drugs that stop the destruction and reabsorption of bones into the body, such as pamidronate or etidronate (bisphosphonates)
  • Fluids through a vein (IV fluids)

Surgery is the recommended treatment for parathyroid cancer. Very often, it is impossible to know whether a parathyroid tumor is cancerous or not. Your doctor may recommend surgery even without a confirmed diagnosis.

If tests before the surgery can find the suspicious gland, surgery may be done on one side of the neck (unilateral). If it is not possible to find the problem gland before surgery, the surgeon will look at both sides of your neck.

Chemotherapy and radiation do not work very well in preventing the cancer from coming back, although radiation can sometimes help reduce the spread of cancer to the bones. Repeated surgeries for cancer that has returned may increase survival rate and reduce the severe effects of hypercalcemia.

Minimally invasive surgery, using smaller cuts, is becoming more common for parathyroid disease.



Expectations (prognosis):

Parathyroid cancer is a rare cancer. The tumor is slow growing. Surgery may help extend life even when the cancer spreads.



Complications:

The cancer may spread (metastasize) to other places in the body, most commonly the lungs and bones.

The most serious complication of parathyroid cancer is hypercalcemia. Most deaths from parathyroid cancer occur as a result of severe, difficult to control hypercalcemia, and not the cancer itself.

The cancer commonly comes back (recurs). Additional surgeries may be needed. Complications from surgery can include:

  • Hoarseness or voice changes as a result of damage to the nerve that controls the vocal cords
  • Infection at the site of surgery
  • Low levels of calcium in the blood (hypocalcemia), a potentially life-threatening condition
  • Scarring


Calling your health care provider: Call your health care provider if you feel a lump in your neck or experience symptoms of hypercalcemia.

References:

Phillip K, Pellitteri PK, Sofferman RA, Randolph GW. Surgical management of parathyroid disorders. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al., eds.Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby; 2005.

Rodgers SE, Lew JI, Solórzano CC. Primary hyperparathyroidism. Curr Opin Oncol. 2008;20:52-58.

Lang B, Lo CY. Parathyroid cancer. Surg Oncol Clin N Am. 2006;15:573-584.




Review Date: 3/24/2008
Reviewed By: Stephen Grund, MD, PhD, Chief of Hematology/Oncology and Director of the George Bray Cancer Center at New Britain General Hospital, New Britain, CT. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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