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Having your operation for thyroid cancer

Men and woman discussing thyroid cancer

This page tells you what it is like to have thyroid cancer surgery. You can find the following information


A quick guide to what's on this page

Having your operation for thyroid cancer

Before your operation, your surgeon, anaesthetist and nurse will talk to you. The surgeon will explain the operation. Ask as many questions as you need to. It may help to make a list beforehand. Before surgery, you may need to have some tests such as an ECG to check your general health and fitness.

When you wake up, you are likely to have several tubes in place to give fluids into a vein and to drain the wound. You will probably have some pain and stiffness in your neck. But this is usually manageable. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have pain so that they can find the right painkiller and dose for you.

Over the next couple of days, your nurses will help you to get up and about. Most people go home about 1 to 2 days after this surgery. It will probably be uncomfortable to swallow for a few days after your operation, so it may help to have a soft diet for a while. Talk to a dietician about this, or ask for a diet sheet to take home.

If you have had your whole thyroid removed, you will have to take tablets to replace the thyroid hormones that would normally be made by the thyroid gland.

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating thyroid cancer section.



Before surgery

Before your surgery you may need some of the following tests, depending on your general health and fitness. 

  • Blood tests to check your general health and kidney function
  • A chest X-ray to check your lungs are healthy
  • An ECG to check your heart is healthy.

These tests are to make sure you are fit enough to make a good recovery from your surgery. You may have had some of them while your cancer was being diagnosed. If so, you may not have to have them again.

Before your surgery, you will talk to the surgeon, anaesthetist and nurse about what will happen. This will either be during an outpatient appointment or when you go into hospital for your operation. You may also see a physiotherapist. Your surgeon will explain what is going to be done and what to expect when you come round from the anaesthetic. Do ask as many questions as you need to. It may help to make a list of your questions before you go into hospital. There are some suggestions for questions at the end of this section. And there is information about possible complications in this section.

The more you know about what is going to happen, the less frightening it will seem. Don’t worry if you think of more questions later. Just speak to your nurses. They can answer your questions, or can contact the doctor to talk to you again.

Your nurse or physiotherapist may teach you some breathing and leg exercises. You can help yourself to get better quicker by doing these exercises after your operation. Do them as often as you are told you need to. Breathing exercises will help to stop you getting a chest infection. And leg exercises help to stop clots forming in your legs. Both these complications of surgery can happen if you are not able to move around as much as you would normally in the days after your surgery. Your nurses will encourage you to get up and about as soon as possible after your operation.

Below is a short video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery. Click on the arrow to watch it.


View a transcript of the video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery (opens in new window)


After the surgery

When you come round from the anaesthetic, you may be in a special recovery area for a short time. Don't worry about this. It is so that a nurse can keep a close eye on you until you are fully awake. Once you have completely come round, you will be taken back to your ward. You will be kept sitting up so that you can breathe easily.

When you wake up, you will have several different tubes going into your body. This can be a bit frightening. But it helps to know what they are all for. You will have

  • A drip (intravenous infusion) to give you fluids until you are drinking again
  • One or more tubes (drains) coming out from your wound

Your nurse can normally take out the drip and drains within 24 hours of the surgery.

The tube coming out from the wound will be connected to a drainage bottle or bag. It is there to stop blood and fluids from collecting inside your wound and causing swelling. Swelling in this area could be uncomfortable and could interfere with your breathing and swallowing. The tube will be taken out when there is only a small amount of fluid coming out of it. This is usually within a day or so. If you have had lymph nodes removed, you may need to have the drains in for longer.

Your neck wound is usually closed with stitches that are under the skin surface and dissolve over a few weeks. Sometimes surgeons use clips rather than stitches. Clips need to be removed a few weeks after the operation. You may have a sore throat but this will stop within a few days.



You will almost certainly have some pain and stiffness in your neck after your operation. Usually the pain is well controlled and you will probably be up and about the first day or so after surgery. There are many different painkilling drugs you can have. It is important to tell your doctor or nurse as soon as you feel any pain. They can then find the right type and dose of painkiller for you. Painkillers work best when you take them regularly.


Getting ready to go home

Most people go home about 1 or 2 days after this type of surgery. You will feel much better once you have got rid of your drips and drains. You may go back to the hospital or to your GP surgery every few days for a nurse to check your wound. You will have the phone number of the hospital ward and can call them if you are worried about anything.

You will probably find it uncomfortable to swallow for at least a few days after your operation. It may help to have a soft diet for a while. You can talk to a dietician about this if you need to. Or your nurse may give you a diet sheet to take home with you.

You will be given some exercises to do to help you get rid of the stiffness in your neck. Normally, you can start these a day or two after surgery. You should keep doing them until you can move your neck and shoulder as freely as you could before. This will be within a few weeks of your operation.


Side effects of surgery

After thyroid surgery some people have a hoarse voice. There is more about the possible complications of thyroid surgery in this section. Very rarely an infection develops after surgery. The infection can be in the wound or you may have a chest or urine infection. If this happens, your doctor will give you antibiotics to clear the infection up.


Thyroid hormone replacement

If you have had your whole thyroid removed, you will need to take tablets to replace the thyroid hormones that your thyroid would normally make. The thyroid hormones are thyroxine (T4) and liothyronine (T3). You need one of these hormones to keep your body metabolism working effectively and will need to take them for the rest of your life. Without the hormones, you would feel tired, gain weight, have dry skin and hair, and feel physically and mentally lacking in energy. Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you about which hormones you need to take and the correct dose.

If you have had follicular or papillary thyroid cancer, the hormones may also help to stop the cancer from coming back. They stop your body from producing another hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which can encourage these types of thyroid cancer cells to grow.

If you need to have radioactive iodine treatment or radioisotope scans after your operation, the doctors may give you a man made type of thyroid stimulating hormone (called recombinant TSH – rhTSH, or Thyrogen). You have this for a few weeks beforehand. It helps any thyroid cancer cells in the body to take up radioactive iodine.

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Updated: 13 November 2014