Surgery for thyroid cancer

There are different types of surgery to treat thyroid cancer. The operation you have depends on the type and stage of your thyroid cancer.

Surgery is the treatment most often used for follicular, papillary and medullary thyroid cancers. You might have:

  • all of your thyroid removed (total thyroidectomy)
  • or part of your thyroid removed (lobectomy or partial thyroidectomy)

Total thyroidectomy

This is surgery to remove all your thyroid.

You might be offered a total thyroidectomy if you have an abnormal gene which increases your risk of developing medullary cancer. The whole gland is removed to stop the cancer developing in any thyroid tissue left behind.

Diagram showing before and after a thyroidectomy

Lobectomy or partial thyroidectomy

This is surgery to remove part of your thyroid. You might need a second operation if your doctor thinks that the cancer has spread.

Diagram showing a lobectomy of the thyroid gland

Removing lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are part of a network of lymph vessels throughout your body. Cancer can spread to the lymph nodes. During your operation you may have some lymph nodes removed to check if cancer cells have spread there.

If your surgeon knows before the operation that you have cancer in some lymph nodes, you have these removed. They may remove all the nodes on that side of your neck or in the centre of your neck.

Diagram showing the position of the lymph nodes in the neck

You will have the lymph nodes in the central area of your neck removed If you have surgery for medullary thyroid cancer. This is because they may contain cancer cells. This is called a prophylactic lymph node dissection. Your surgeon may also remove the lymph nodes on one or both sides of your neck.

Diagram showing after surgery for medullary thyroid cancer with the central lymph nodes and thyroid gland removed

If you have some of your lymph nodes removed, you should take extra care of the area where the lymph nodes were. For example, it is important to avoid infection in this area and to talk to your healthcare team if you notice any swelling. 

Having thyroid surgery

Partial and total thyroidectomy are big operations. You need to be fit enough for a long operation and to make a good recovery afterwards.

You have a pre assessment appointment before your surgery. You will have some tests and meet your healthcare team.

You have your operation under a general anaesthetic, so you won’t be aware of anything or feel anything. The doctor will make a cut in the area of your lower neck to get to the thyroid gland.

After surgery and side effects

After the operation you may have a dressing over the area on your neck. There will be stitches or staples in your wound and you may have one or two tubes (drains) coming from your wound.

Side effects following thyroid surgery can include:

  • infection
  • blood clots or bleeding
  • voice changes, such as a hoarse voice

Your neck and throat will feel sore and uncomfortable for a few days

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