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Home > Living Well > Health Library > Thyroid Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Thyroid cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the thyroid gland.
The thyroid is a gland at the base of the throat near the trachea (windpipe). It is shaped like a butterfly, with a right lobe and a left lobe. The isthmus, a thin piece of tissue, connects the two lobes. A healthy thyroid is a little larger than a quarter. It usually cannot be felt through the skin.
Anatomy of the thyroid and parathyroid glands. The thyroid gland lies at the base of the throat near the trachea. It is shaped like a butterfly, with the right lobe and left lobe connected by a thin piece of tissue called the isthmus. The parathyroid glands are four pea-sized organs found in the neck near the thyroid. The thyroid and parathyroid glands make hormones.
The thyroid uses iodine, a mineral found in some foods and in iodized salt, to help make several hormones. Thyroid hormones do the following:
Thyroid nodules are common but usually are not cancer.
Your doctor may find a lump (nodule) in your thyroid during a routine medical exam. A thyroid nodule is an abnormal growth of thyroid cells in the thyroid. Nodules may be solid or fluid -filled.
When a thyroid nodule is found, an ultrasound of the thyroid and a fine-needle aspiration biopsy are often done to check for signs of cancer. Blood tests to check thyroid hormone levels and for antithyroid antibodies in the blood may also be done to check for other types of thyroid disease.
Thyroid nodules usually don't cause symptoms or need treatment. Sometimes the thyroid nodules become large enough that it is hard to swallow or breathe and more tests and treatment are needed. Only a small number of thyroid nodules are diagnosed as cancer.
There are different types of thyroid cancer.
Thyroid cancer can be described as either:
Well-differentiated tumors (papillary thyroid cancer and follicular thyroid cancer) can be treated and can usually be cured.
Poorly differentiated and undifferentiated tumors (anaplastic thyroid cancer) are less common. These tumors grow and spread quickly and have a poorer chance of recovery. Patients with anaplastic thyroid cancer should have molecular testing for a mutation in the BRAFgene.
Medullary thyroid cancer is a neuroendocrine tumor that develops in C cells of the thyroid. The C cells make a hormone (calcitonin) that helps maintain a healthy level of calcium in the blood.
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Thyroid Cancer Treatment for information about childhood thyroid cancer.
Age, gender, and being exposed to radiation can affect the risk of thyroid cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Risk factors for thyroid cancer include the following:
Medullary thyroid cancer is sometimes caused by a change in a gene that is passed from parent to child.
The genes in cells carry hereditary information from parent to child. A certain change in the RET gene that is passed from parent to child (inherited) may cause medullary thyroid cancer.
There is a genetic test that is used to check for the changed gene. The patient is tested first to see if he or she has the changed gene. If the patient has it, other family members may also be tested to find out if they are at increased risk for medullary thyroid cancer. Family members, including young children, who have the changed gene may have a thyroidectomy (surgery to remove the thyroid). This can decrease the chance of developing medullary thyroid cancer.
Signs of thyroid cancer include a swelling or lump in the neck.
Thyroid cancer may not cause early signs or symptoms. It is sometimes found during a routine physical exam. Signs or symptoms may occur as the tumor gets bigger. Other conditions may cause the same signs or symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the thyroid, neck, and blood are used to diagnose thyroid cancer.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
After thyroid cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the thyroid or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the thyroid or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the patient's age and the stage of the cancer to plan treatment.
The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if thyroid cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually thyroid cancer cells. The disease is metastatic thyroid cancer, not lung cancer.
Stages are used to describe thyroid cancer based on the type of thyroid cancer and the age of the patient:
Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 55 years
Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 55 years and older
Anaplastic thyroid cancer in patients of all ages
Anaplastic thyroid cancer grows quickly and usually has spread within the neck when it is found. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is considered stage IV thyroid cancer. Stage IV anaplastic thyroid cancer is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.
Medullary thyroid cancer in patients of all ages
Thyroid cancer can recur (come back) after it has been treated.
The cancer may come back in the thyroid or in other parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for patients with thyroid cancer.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with thyroid cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Six types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery is the most common treatment for thyroid cancer. One of the following procedures may be used:
Radiation therapy, including radioactive iodine therapy
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
Radiation therapy may be given after surgery to kill any thyroid cancer cells that were not removed. Follicular and papillary thyroid cancers are sometimes treated with radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy. RAI is taken by mouth and collects in any remaining thyroid tissue, including thyroid cancer cells that have spread to other places in the body. Since only thyroid tissue takes up iodine, the RAI destroys thyroid tissue and thyroid cancer cells without harming other tissue. Before a full treatment dose of RAI is given, a small test-dose is given to see if the tumor takes up the iodine.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy and radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy are used to treat thyroid cancer.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
See Drugs Approved for Thyroid Cancer for more information.
Thyroid hormone therapy
Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that removes hormones or blocks their action and stops cancer cells from growing. Hormones are substances made by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. In the treatment of thyroid cancer, drugs may be given to prevent the body from making thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), a hormone that can increase the chance that thyroid cancer will grow or recur.
Also, because thyroid cancer treatment kills thyroid cells, the thyroid is not able to make enough thyroid hormone. Patients are given thyroid hormone replacement pills.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation do. There are different types of targeted therapy:
Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient's condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy. Immunotherapy is being studied as a treatment for thyroid cancer.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Treatment for thyroid cancer may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of stage I (younger than 55 years; 55 years and older), stage II (younger than 55 years; 55 years and older), and stage III papillary and follicular thyroid cancer may include the following:
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
When cancer has spread to other places in the body, such as the lungs and bone, treatment usually does not cure the cancer, but can relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life. Treatment of stage IV papillary and follicular thyroid cancer may include the following:
For tumors that take up iodine
For tumors that do not take up iodine
Treatment of recurrent papillary and follicular thyroid cancer may include the following:
Localized medullary thyroid cancer is in the thyroid only and may have spread to nearby muscles in the neck. Locally advanced and metastatic thyroid cancer has spread to other parts of the neck or to other parts of the body.
Treatment of localized medullary thyroid cancer may include the following:
Treatment of locally advanced/metastatic medullary thyroid cancer may include the following:
Radioactive iodine therapy is not used to treat medullary thyroid cancer.
Treatment of anaplastic thyroid cancer may include the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about thyroid cancer, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of adult thyroid cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Thyroid Cancer Treatment (Adult). Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/thyroid/patient/thyroid-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389296]
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Last Revised: 2022-03-30
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