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Treatment decisions

Read about the different types of treatment for thyroid cancer and how your doctor decides which treatment you need.

Deciding which treatment you need

A team of doctors and other professionals discuss the best treatment and care for you. They are called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

The treatment you have depends on:

  • where your cancer is
  • how far it has grown or spread (the stage)
  • the type of cancer
  • how abnormal the cells look under a microscope (the grade)
  • your general health and level of fitness

Your doctor will talk to you about your treatment, its benefits and the possible side effects.

Treatment overview

The main treatments for thyroid cancer.

Surgery is the treatment most often used for thyroid cancer. You may have part of your thyroid removed (called a lobectomy or partial thyroidectomy). Or you may have an operation to remove all of your thyroid gland (a total thyroidectomy). These are both major operations, carried out under general anaesthetic.

Radioactive iodine is a very effective type of treatment for thyroid cancer. Thyroid cells absorb iodine (131 or I-131) and radiation in the iodine kills the cancer cells. For papillary or follicular thyroid cancer, you may have this:

  • after surgery
  • for cancer that's spread or come back

You may have thyroid hormone therapy:

  • to treat the cancer
  • after surgery to replace the thyroid hormones your thyroid gland would normally make

If you have papillary or follicular thyroid cancer, your treatment may include thyroid hormones. Thyroxine (T4) is the hormone most usually used. Another hormone tri iodothyronine (T3) might be used in a very small number of people.

Taking thyroid hormones stops your body from making thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which may encourage the cancer to grow. This can help reduce the risk of the cancer coming back, or slow it down if it’s already spread.

Targeted cancer drugs are treatments that act on processes in cells or change the way that cells signal to each other. They can stimulate the body to attack or control the growth of cancer cells. There are many different types of targeted cancer drugs.

You might have these drugs to treat advanced medullary thyroid cancer that is causing symptoms and cannot be operated on. You would have one of the following drugs:

  • vandetanib (Caprelsa)
  • cabozantinib (Cometriq)

You might have lenvatenib for advanced papillary thyroid cancer or follicular thyroid cancer, when radioactive iodine treatment is no longer working.

Radiotherapy uses high energy waves similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells. Anaplastic thyroid cancers don’t pick up iodine well, so external beam radiotherapy is usually used.

Chemotherapy isn’t often used to treat thyroid cancer.  You might have doxorubicin or doxorubicin with cisplatin if you have advanced thyroid cancer or your cancer has come back.

Clinical trials

Your doctor might ask if you’d like to take part in a clinical trial. Doctors and researchers do trials to make existing treatments better and develop new treatments.

Last reviewed: 
08 Jun 2018
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Cancer principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    De Vita VT, Lawrence TS and Rosenberg SA
    Lippincott, Wiliams and Wilkins, 2015

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