The parathyroid glands are four pea-sized glands located in the neck near the thyroid, which secrete parathyroid hormone (PTH). PTH regulates calcium levels throughout the body. Tumors can form within the tissues of the parathyroid. These tumors tend to grow very slowly and impact the body with over-production of PTH, also called hyperparathyroidism. The vast majority of parathyroid tumors are benign (not cancerous). Parathyroid cancer has only been diagnosed in a few hundred cases.

Risk Factors

Besides genetics, there are no common characteristics that put people at higher risk for developing parathyroid cancer. Some patients with parathyroid cancer have already been suffering from parathyroid adenomas or hyperplasia.

Symptoms 

The following symptoms may indicate the presence of a parathyroid tumor and the resulting hyperparathyroidism:

  • Lump or nodule in the neck
  • Pain in the bones or in the upper back
  • Fractures
  • Kidney stones
  • Pancreatitis
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble speaking
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Constipation
  • Frequent urination
  • Extreme thirst

Diagnosis 

Cancer of the parathyroid can be difficult to detect, since its symptoms are similar to those of simple hyperparathyroidism. Symptoms can be more severe. At this time, there are no specific tests for these tumors, but there are ways that an official diagnosis can emerge:

  1. Symptoms: A patient's symptoms strongly indicate the presence of a parathyroid tumor. The doctor surgically identifies and removes it.
  2. During hyperparathyroidism surgery: During surgery to remove various non-cancerous lesions or growths from a patient with hyperparathyroidism, the surgeon may discover cancerous lesions.
  3. After hyperparathyroidism surgery: Upon removal and examination of a seemingly non-cancerous lesion or growth from a patient with hyperparathyroidism, the doctor discovers it is indeed cancerous.
  4. Symptoms after surgery: If a patient with hyperparathyroidism undergoes surgery but still experiences symptoms additional imaging tests can help verify the diagnosis. Tests include:
  5. Scintigraphy and ultrasound for neck tumors
  6. CT scan and MR scan

Treatment 

Surgery is the primary treatment for parathyroid tumors. Removal of nearby thyroid gland and lymph nodes may sometimes be performed.

When cancer has metastasized, additional methods and drugs are necessary to help the body excrete excess calcium. These include:

  • Intravenous saline
  • Diuretics
  • Bisphosphonates
  • Gallium nitrate
  • Cinecalcet™

Learn more about parathyroid tumor treatment with the MedStar Cancer Network.

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