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Statistics and outlook for thyroid cancer

Outlook means the likely outcome of your disease and treatment. Your doctor may call this your prognosis. With thyroid cancer, the likely outcome depends on the type of thyroid cancer, your age and how advanced the cancer is when it is diagnosed (the stage of your cancer).

Below, we have quite detailed information about the likely outcome of different stages of thyroid cancer. The statistics we use are taken from a variety of sources, including the opinions and experience of the experts who check every section of Cancer Research UK's patient information. They are intended as a general guide only. For a more complete picture in your case, you need to speak to your own specialist.

We include statistics because people ask for them, but not everyone wishes to read this type of information. Remember you can skip this page if you don't want to read it, you can always come back to it.

How reliable are cancer statistics?

No statistics can tell you what will happen to you. Your cancer is unique. The same type of cancer can grow at different rates in different people. The statistics cannot tell you about the different treatments people may have had, or how that treatment may have affected their prognosis. There are many individual factors that will affect your treatment and your outlook.
 

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

 

 

About the information on this page

We have included this information because people ask us for it. But not everyone who is diagnosed with a cancer wants to read this type of information. If you are not sure whether you want to know at the moment, you might like to skip this page for now. You can always come back to it.

Please note that no national statistics are available for different stages of thyroid cancer or treatments that people may have had. The statistics we present here are pulled together from a variety of different sources, including the opinions and experience of the experts who check each section of Cancer Research UK's patient information. We give statistics because people ask us for them. But they are only intended as a general guide and can't tell you what will happen in your individual case.

 

Cancer statistics in general

Unless you are very familiar with medical statistics, you may find it helpful to go to our section about different types of cancer statistics before you read the information below.

Remember that statistics are averages based on large numbers of patients. They cannot predict exactly what will happen to you. No two patients are exactly alike and how well treatment works also varies from one person to another. You should feel free to ask your doctor about your outlook (prognosis), but not even your doctor can tell you for sure what will happen.

You may hear doctors use the term 5 or 10 year survival. This does not mean that you will only live 5 or 10 years. It relates to the number of people who are alive 5 or 10 years after diagnosis. Doctors use this figure to compare the effects of treatment and survival internationally.

 

What affects thyroid cancer outcomes

Prognosis is another word for outcome. In other words, what you may expect to happen as a result of your illness. Doctors take different factors into account when they are trying to work out your likely outcome. These are called prognostic factors.

With thyroid cancer, the most important prognostic factor is the type of thyroid cancer you have. Papillary thyroid cancers have the best outcome. Over 9 out of 10 people (90%) with papillary thyroid cancer are alive 10 years or more after they were diagnosed. The outcome for follicular thyroid cancer is almost as good. Over 8 out of 10 people (80%) will be alive 10 years after they were diagnosed.

Medullary thyroid cancer also generally has quite a good outcome. The figures are only slightly lower than they are for follicular or papillary thyroid cancer. Unfortunately, the outlook can be very poor for anaplastic thyroid cancer

Other important prognostic factors are your age and the stage of your thyroid cancer. People under 40 years old tend to have a better outcome. So this is a good prognostic factor.

The stage of cancer includes

  • The size of the tumour in your thyroid
  • Whether the cancer has grown outside the covering of the thyroid gland (called invasion of extrathyroidal tissue)
  • Whether the thyroid cancer has spread to another part of your body

There is more detailed information about the 5 year survival rates for the different types of thyroid cancers below. Remember that all these statistics are based on people who had treatment a number of years ago. Treatments improve over time, so people having treatment now may have a better outlook.

 

Papillary thyroid cancer

Papillary thyroid cancer responds very well to treatment and most people are cured.

Stage 1 and 2

These are curable. Everyone diagnosed with stages 1 and 2 papillary thyroid cancer is likely to live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

Stage 3

The figures drop slightly for this more advanced stage. Even so, over 9 out of 10 people (90%) diagnosed with stage 3 papillary thyroid cancer will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

Stage 4

As you might expect, the survival statistics fall with this advanced stage of papillary thyroid cancer. But even with papillary thyroid cancer that has spread, about half of those diagnosed (50%) will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

 

Follicular thyroid cancer

The 5 year survival statistics for follicular thyroid cancer are nearly as good as they are for papillary. Most people are cured.

Stage 1 and 2

Nearly all the people diagnosed with these early stages of follicular thyroid cancer (99%) will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

Stage 3

Between 7 and 8 out of 10 people (70 to 80%) diagnosed with stage 3 follicular thyroid cancer will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

Stage 4

For this stage of the disease the statistics drop considerably compared to stage 3. Even so, about half of the people diagnosed (50%) with stage 4 follicular thyroid cancer will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

 

Medullary thyroid cancer

Medullary thyroid cancer also generally has quite a good outcome. 

Stage 1 and 2

Nearly all the people diagnosed with these early stages of medullary thyroid cancer (98%) will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

Stage 3

About 75 to 80 out of 100 people (75 to 80%) diagnosed with this stage will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

Stage 4

Unfortunately, survival statistics do fall with this advanced stage of medullary thyroid cancer. Between 25 and 40 out of every 100 people (25 to 40%) diagnosed with this stage of medullary thyroid cancer will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

 

Anaplastic thyroid cancer

Unfortunately anaplastic thyroid cancer does not have a very good outlook. Most patients with this type of thyroid cancer live between 2 to 6 months. The prognosis for individual people with anaplastic thyroid cancer depends on the size of the tumour and how much can be removed with surgery. The best outlook is if the tumour is less than 5 cm in size and can be completely removed, but even then less than 2 out of every 10 people (20%) live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

 

The grade of cancer

Another factor that can affect your prognosis, apart from the stage of your cancer, is the grade of your cancer. The cells are graded according to how like or unlike normal cells they are when looked at under a microscope. Follicular and papillary thyroid cancers are graded as

  • Very like normal thyroid cells (well differentiated)
  • Unlike normal thyroid cells (moderately differentiated)
  • Very unlike normal thyroid cells (poorly differentiated)

Well differentiated cancers are considered to be low grade. They grow slowly and are less likely to spread. Poorly differentiated cancers tend to grow more quickly and have a higher risk of coming back.

Medullary thyroid cancer is not graded. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is also called undifferentiated thyroid cancer. This is because the cancer cells look completely unlike normal thyroid cells. This type of thyroid cancer is more likely to grow quickly and spread than the other types. Almost half the number of people with anaplastic thyroid cancer (50%) have cancer that has spread to other areas of the body at the time of diagnosis.

 

How reliable are cancer statistics?

No statistics can tell you what will happen to you. You are unique and so is your cancer. The same type of cancer can grow at different rates in different people. The statistics are not detailed enough to tell you about the different treatments people may have had. And how that treatment may have affected their prognosis. There are many individual factors that will determine your treatment and prognosis.

 

Clinical trials

Taking part in clinical trials can help to improve treatments for thyroid cancer. There is more about understanding clinical trials in our trials and research section. You can search for trials on our clinical trials database. To find thyroid cancer trials pick 'thyroid' from the dropdown list of cancer types.

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Updated: 5 November 2014