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Doctor Advocates Swift Diagnosis, Surgical Expertise For This Silent Cancer

Dr. Gary Clayman moved to Tampa General Hospital two years ago, looking for a better way to treat thyroid nodules and cancers.

“I wanted to create something that didn’t exist anywhere else,” said Clayman, formerly the leading head and neck thyroid surgeon at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Clayman wanted to improve the experience of most thyroid patients, who often spend months getting multiple scans and specialty appointments before getting a final diagnosis of a thyroid nodule. He wanted to compress that process from months to hours.

He succeeded. Patients at the Tampa General Hospital Thyroid & Parathyroid Institute learn their results quickly.

“We have a program that doesn’t take months to figure out what to do with a thyroid nodule. Patients find out in an hour or two whether their thyroid nodule can be monitored or requires surgery” Clayman said. “Within an hour of walking in the door, your thyroid nodule is biopsied and then diagnosed by a specialist pathologist.”

Fastest Growing Type of Cancer

A faster process from diagnosis to treatment is especially needed for thyroid nodules, Clayman said, because cases of thyroid tumors of all kinds are increasing. The chances of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer has tripled in the past 30 years, according to the American Cancer Society. While rarely deadly, it is the nation’s fastest growing type of cancer.

“We saw 50,000 new thyroid cancers in the U.S. in 2017, and we’re not sure why,” Clayman said. “Thyroid cancer is also increasing globally.”

Nearly 75 percent of thyroid tumors are found in women, most frequently those between 30 and 50 years old.

Dr. Jim Norman, left, and Dr. Gary Clayman pose for a portrait in the a parathyroid operating room at Tampa General Hospital on April 3, 2018.

Thryoid Cancer Is Highly Curable

The good news? In most cases, the disease is highly curable with minimal surgery. Most patients don’t require chemotherapy or radiation, Clayman said.

The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism. When cancer occurs, it may cause lumps or swelling in the neck. It may lead to hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, or a cough. But often, Clayman says, his patients don’t notice any symptoms. They come to him because the tumor shows up on an ultrasound.

Dr. Clayman has focused on thyroid surgery for nearly 20 years. In a typical year, he performs more than 400 thyroid cancer operations. A fellow of the American College of Surgeons and the American Head and Neck Society, Dr. Clayman served as the Distinguished Chair of Head and Neck Surgery and the Chief of Head and Neck Endocrine Surgery at M.D. Anderson.

He’s an advocate for establishing centers of excellence for thyroid surgery to reduce the rates of recurrence and surgical complications, such as cutting the nerves to the voice box or mistakenly removing parathyroid glands.

Dr. Clayman was recruited to Tampa General by Dr. Jim Norman, who leads the hospital’s parathyroid program. “Jim convinced me that we could do the same for thyroid treatment that he’s created for parathyroid surgery,” he said.

Tampa General’s thyroid program also emphasizes personal attention and individual care, Dr. Clayman said.

“My patients have my phone number and everyone is treated like family,” he said. “Being connected, giving personalized attention — that translates to excellence in care.”

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