Treatment options for thyroid cancer

A team of doctors and other professionals discuss the best treatment and care for you. Your doctor will then talk to you about the treatment they suggest. They will explain its benefits and the possible side effects.

Your treatment will depend on: 

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

The main treatments for thyroid cancer are described below. You may have more than one of these treatments.

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for thyroid cancer. You may have part of your thyroid removed. This is called a lobectomy or partial thyroidectomy. Or you might 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 treatment

Radioactive iodine is a very effective treatment for some types of thyroid cancer. Thyroid cells absorb iodine (131 or I-131) and the radiation in the iodine kills the cancer cells.

You usually have the radioactive iodine as a drink or capsule.

Thyroid hormone therapy

You may have thyroid hormone therapy:  

  • after surgery to replace the hormones your thyroid gland would normally make
  • as a treatment for your thyroid cancer

You take thyroxine (T4) or liothyronine (T3) tablets.

Targeted cancer drugs

Targeted cancer drugs work by targeting the differences in cancer cells that help them to grow and survive. There are many different types of targeted drugs.

The type that is used for thyroid cancer is a group of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI).

External radiotherapy for thyroid cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy waves similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells. External beam treatment directs radiotherapy beams at the cancer from a machine outside of the body.  You may have it if other treatments do not work very well.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells in the body. This treatment isn’t often used to treat thyroid cancer.  You might have chemotherapy if your cancer has spread to another part of the body, or if it comes back

Treatment by type of thyroid cancer

Your type of thyroid cancer depends on the type of cell the cancer started in. The treatment can be different for each type, although there are some similarities.

Treatment for papillary, follicular and Hürthle cell thyroid cancer (differentiated thyroid cancer)

You usually have an operation to remove part or all of your thyroid if you have one of these types. You are more likely to have your whole thyroid removed if you have Hürthle cell thyroid cancer. 

After surgery you may have radioactive iodine treatment. The aim of this is to treat any thyroid cancer that might have been left behind.

You might also have radioactive iodine treatment if the cancer comes back or has spread.

You have thyroid hormone tablets after surgery if the surgeon removes your whole gland. This is called thyroid hormone replacement. You generally don’t need to take hormones if you have had part of your thyroid gland removed. But you may need them if blood tests show that the remaining part of your thyroid gland is not making the hormones you need.

These hormones may also help to stop follicular and papillary thyroid cancer coming back. They stop your body from producing another hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH encourages these types of thyroid cancer cells to grow.

You may have a targeted drug if:

  • radioactive iodine is no longer working, and
  • your cancer has spread outside of the thyroid gland into the surrounding area, or to other parts of the body.

Treatment for medullary thyroid cancer

You usually have surgery to remove your thyroid gland for medullary thyroid cancer. After surgery you will need to take thyroid hormone replacement tablets.

You may have external beam radiotherapy after your surgery. You won’t have radioactive iodine. This is because medullary thyroid cancer does not absorb iodine in the same way differentiated thyroid cancer does.

You might have a targeted drug if you can’t have surgery to remove your medullary thyroid cancer. Or if your cancer has spread outside of the thyroid gland or to another part of your body.

Treatment for anaplastic thyroid cancer

Anaplastic thyroid cancer tends to grow more quickly than other types. When you are first diagnosed, your cancer may have already spread outside of your thyroid gland.

The main treatments for this type of thyroid cancer are external beam radiotherapy and chemotherapy. You could have them on their own, or together. You may have surgery, depending on your situation, but this is less common.

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: 
18 May 2021
Next review due: 
20 May 2024
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    A L Mitchell and others
    Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130, Supplement 2, Pages 150 to 160

  • Thyroid cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    S.Filetti and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2019. Volume 30, Pages 1856 -1883    

  • Advancements in the treatment of differentiated thyroid cancer
    LA Stewart and JH Kuo
    Therapeutic Advances Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2021. Volume 12, Pages 1-13

  • Medullary thyroid carcinoma beyond surgery: advances, challenges, and perspectives
    L Ceolin and others
    Endocrine Related Cancer, 2019. 26(9), R499-R518

  • Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma: review of treatment protocols
    V Tiedje and others
    Endocrine Related Cancer, 2018. 25(3), R153-R161

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

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