Parathyroid cancer is derived from the parathyroid glands, located in the neck, usually behind the thyroid gland. The four tiny (the size of a grain of rice), mustard-yellow parathyroid glands control the body's bone and blood calcium levels. Even though they are located near the thyroid gland, the two glands are not related.
Cancers of the parathyroid are exceedingly rare in the general population. Most problems with the parathyroid glands are usually caused by benign parathyroid tumors, which disrupt the body's calcium levels. Typically, a tumor will cause one of the parathyroid glands to become enlarged and produce too much parathyroid hormone (PTH), which in turn raises blood calcium levels above normal. This is referred to as hypercalcemia. When high blood calcium levels are caused by overactivity of the parathyroid gland we call this hyperparathyroidism. Hyperparathyroidism can cause osteoporosis and many other serious problems. If left untreated, the high calcium levels caused by parathyroid tumors can increase the risk of damage to other organ systems such as the kidney, bone, heart, and blood vessels.
The symptoms of a parathyroid tumor may include general achiness, depression, fatigue, abdominal pain (sometimes due to kidney stones), nausea, vomiting, excessive urination, confusion, and muscle weakness.
Parathyroid tumors are usually removed by surgery. It is rare for more than one gland to be affected and people can live with far fewer than four glands. Proper surgical treatment of benign parathyroid tumors will result in cure for > 95% of patients. For the rare parathyroid cancer, wide surgical resection followed by radiotherapy can be curative.