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It’s important to remember that thyroid cancer in young people can be successfully treated - and most young people are completely cured. If the tests| you’ve had show you have thyroid cancer, your team of specialists will discuss these treatments with you.
Surgery to remove the thyroid gland is the main treatment for thyroid cancer. You might hear the doctors talk about a thyroidectomy, which is the medical name for the operation. Sometimes the surgeon will only need to remove part of your thyroid. This is called a partial or hemi-thyroidectomy.
In the neck, close to the thyroid|, are lymph nodes. These are part of the body’s immune system and help fight infection. Sometimes cancer cells lodge in these lymph nodes, so the surgeon might remove some or all of them. They may also remove some tissue from the area around the thyroid if there are any cancer cells there.
You may feel really shocked and scared by the thought of having thissuch an operation. But it does give a really good chance of a cure. Your specialist will talk things over with you in detail and make sure that you fully understand what’s involved. If you want to know more about what happens when you go in for an operation, there’s lots more information in the general surgery section.
If you’ve been told that you need to have treatment with radioactive iodine, you may be feeling worried about what’s going to happen. Knowing more about what to expect can help. Here we'll answer some questions you might have about what’s likely to happen before, during and after the treatment. Your doctors and nurses will also explain things to you and give you support.
Our bodies have minerals called iodine in our bloodstream. Normal thyroid tissue takes iodine from our bloodstream and uses it to make thyroid hormones. Some thyroid cancers are able to take iodine from the bloodstream too.
Radioactive iodine is often used after surgery when all the thyroid tissue has been removed. Any thyroid cancer cells left behind soak up the iodine which contains high doses of radiation. This helps to destroy them. Radioactive iodine doesn’t usually affect other parts of the body because other cells don’t soak up iodine the way thyroid cells do.
It can be given as a capsule, a drink or can be given into a vein in your arm through a cannula.
If you’re already taking thyroid hormones, you’ll be asked to stop taking them for 2–4 weeks before the treatment. This is because radioactive iodine works better without these hormones. Some people won’t be started on thyroid hormones until after surgery and radioactive iodine treatment.
For about 2 weeks before treatment, you’ll be asked to eat a low iodine diet and avoid certain foods. This encourages the body to use up its stores of iodine. When the radioactive iodine is given, the cancer cells will soak it up because the amount of iodine in the body is so low. You’ll be given information about what foods you should eat and what to avoid.
Unlike external radiotherapy, this treatment makes you slightly radioactive for about 4–5 days. Your body will gradually get rid of the radioactivity through your urine, sweat and saliva. You will usually be kept in hospital during that time and looked after in a side room on the ward, either on your own or with someone else having the same treatment.
The amount of contact you can have with your friends, family and the nurses will be limited, to protect them from exposure to the radiation. Anyone younger than 18 usually isn’t allowed to visit. This can make you feel lonely. Take in plenty of books, magazines, computer games and your MP3 player to help pass the time. Anything that comes back out of your room will be checked for radiation levels. Sometimes your things may have to be kept on the ward for a couple of days if the radiation levels are high. But they’ll be returned to you when they’re safe again.
Once your radiation levels are safe, you’ll be allowed home. You’ll also be able to start eating your usual foods again. Check with the staff about what you can and can’t do when you get home. There may be some precautions to take for a few days.
Your fertility won’t be affected by the treatment. But, it’s safer not to become pregnant or get someone else pregnant during treatment, and for a year after.
You'll be given hormone therapy after having other treatment for thyroid cancer (surgery and radioactive iodine treatment).
When your thyroid gland is removed, your body can’t produce thyroid hormones anymore. Without these hormones, your metabolism would slow down. You could develop dry skin and hair, tiredness, poor concentration and lack of energy.
These hormones can be replaced by taking tablets. (You’ll need to take these for the rest of your life). The usual long term hormone treatment is thyroxine (levothyroxine) and this usually starts after radioactive iodine treatment.
As well as replacing the hormones you’re missing, thyroxine can also help stop papillary or follicular thyroid cancer coming back. They stop the body from producing something called TSH - thyroid stimulating hormone. TSH stimulates the thyroid to produce more hormones, but it can also encourage these types of cancer to grow.
You’ll need to have your blood| checked regularly to monitor the hormone levels. It can sometimes take months to find the right dose of thyroxine for you. But once the right dose is found, there shouldn’t be any side effects, because they are simply replacing normal thyroid hormones.
It’s important to remember to take your tablets every day. It can help to take them at the same time every day so you get into a routine.
We've got more general information about radiotherapy|, surgery| and radioactive iodine treatment|. This information is written for people of all ages, not just young adults with thyroid cancer.
You can see more info about:
|If you're looking for information about thyroid cancer in people of all ages, please see our broader thyroid cancer| information.
Content last reviewed: 1 June 2012
Next planned review: 2014
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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