This 7-Year-Old's Tongue Was Covered in Large, Yellow Growths—and They Led to His Cancer Diagnosis

The growths on a 7-year-old boy’s tongue signaled to doctors that the child had a genetic condition—that led to an extremely rare cancer diagnosis.

The child was taken to a pediatric ENT clinic to have the painless but firm, slow-growing nodules looked at, according to a case report published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. The nodules had been observed in the patient for three years, the case report says.

When doctors examined him, they decided to cut the nodules out. They then discovered those nodules on his tongue, made of nerve tissue, were actually a symptom of a condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) syndrome, a rare endocrine system disorder that can be associated with medullary thyroid cancer, which the patient was later diagnosed with.

So, what is thyroid cancer—specifically, medullary thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer affects the thyroid, a small, butterfly-shaped gland situated below your voice box. The thyroid produces thyroid hormone (TH), which regulates your body's metabolism, heartbeat, temperature, mood, and other important processes—reaching out to nearly every single cell in your body.

Thyroid cancer isn’t all that rare. In fact, more than 50,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the US, according to estimates from the NIH. But the specific type of thyroid cancer the patient had, medullary thyroid cancer, accounts for only 1 to 2% of thyroid cancer diagnoses in the US, the American Thyroid Association says.

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Medullary thyroid cancer can be fatal and is typically worse than the two most common types of thyroid cancer (papillary and follicular), Sam Huh, MD, chief of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, tells Health. It usually presents as a nodule or lump in the thyroid. “The medullary cancer is very aggressive. Usually [patients with it] need surgery.”

The patient featured in the new case report underwent what sounds like an intense surgery to treat his cancer. “They removed the whole gland. Because it’s very aggressive, you would do a lymph node dissection. They removed all the lymph nodes in his neck,” Dr. Huh explains.

While that seems pretty severe to those of us who didn’t go to med school, it’s actually not as bad as you might think. “You can eat and talk the same day [of the procedure]. If you catch thyroid cancer early enough, the surgery goes pretty well. Complication rate is probably less than 5%.”

Thankfully, the patient in the new report has healed well. The report said that just nine months after surgery he had “recovered well and was growing normally.”

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