Being diagnosed with thyroid cancer

You’ll usually begin by seeing your GP if you have symptoms. They will examine you and arrange any necessary tests. If your GP thinks you may have cancer, they’ll refer you to a hospital for specialist advice and treatment. You should be seen at the hospital within two weeks.

At the hospital

The specialist will ask you about your general health, family history and any previous medical problems you have had. They will do a physical examination. You may have some of the following tests:

Blood tests

Samples of blood will be taken to check your thyroid function and general health.

Ultrasound thyroid scan

An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the neck and the thyroid gland. Your doctor will also check the lymph nodes in your neck to see if any of these are abnormal. This is because sometimes thyroid cancer can spread to the lymph nodes.

You will be asked to lie on your back for the scan. Once you’re lying comfortably, the person doing the scan will spread a gel over your neck. They will then move a small hand-held device like a microphone around your neck area. A picture of the inside of your neck shows up on a screen. An ultrasound only takes a few minutes and is painless.

Fine needle aspiration

A doctor will gently pass a small needle into the swelling in your neck. You may have a local anaesthetic to numb the area. Sometimes the doctor will use an ultrasound scanner to help guide the needle to the right area. They’ll then take a small sample of cells and examine it under a microscope to check whether there are cancer cells present.

Core biopsy

Very occasionally you may need to have a core biopsy. You will have a local anaesthetic to numb the area. Your doctor will then use a slightly bigger needle to take a sample of tissue. An ultrasound scanner may be used to guide the needle to the right area. You may have a core biopsy if:

  • it isn’t possible to do a fine needle aspiration
  • the fine needle aspiration doesn’t collect enough cells
  • the doctor who looks at the cells under the microscope (a pathologist), isn’t sure whether cancer cells are present from the fine needle aspiration or biopsy sample.

If you need to have surgery to remove all or part of your thyroid gland, your doctor may suggest you proceed straight to this rather than having a core biopsy.

Back to Tests and scans