What is thyroid cancer?

The thyroid is a small gland in the front of your neck, just below your voicebox (larynx). The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system. This system makes hormones that help control the way your body functions.

Thyroid cancer is not common. Around 3,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with thyroid cancer each year. Thyroid cancer can happen at any age. It is more common in women

The thyroid gland is close to the parathyroid glands. They have similar names, but they do different things. Thyroid cancer and parathyroid cancer are treated in different ways. We have separate information about parathyroid cancer.

Types of thyroid cancer

There are different types of thyroid cancer. The most common types are papillary and follicular thyroid cancer. These types of thyroid cancer together are called differentiated thyroid cancer (DTC).

Papillary

This is the most common type of thyroid cancer. It is usually slow-growing. Papillary thyroid cancer can affect anyone. It is more common in younger people and women.

We have more information about papillary thyroid cancer.

Follicular

This is a less common type of thyroid cancer. It is mostly found in middle-aged people. We have more information about follicular thyroid cancer.

Other types of thyroid cancer

Medullary

Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is a rare type of thyroid cancer. It can sometimes run in families. We have more information about medullary thyroid cancer.

Anaplastic

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a very rare type of thyroid cancer that is fast-growing. We have more information about anaplastic thyroid cancer.

Thyroid lymphoma

Thyroid lymphomas start in the lymph tissue of the thyroid. The lymph tissue is part of the body’s lymphatic system. Most thyroid lymphomas are a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and are treated with treatments for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Symptoms of thyroid cancer

The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a painless lump in the neck. Most thyroid lumps are not cancerous (benign) but it is important to get any lump checked.

Other symptoms include:

  • a hoarse voice that has no obvious cause and does not go away after a few weeks
  • difficulty swallowing – caused by a thyroid tumour pressing on the gullet (oesophagus)
  • difficulty breathing – caused by a thyroid tumour pressing on the windpipe (trachea)
  • pain in the front of the neck.

You should see your doctor as soon as possible if you notice any of these symptoms.

Different types of thyroid cancer may have other symptoms. We have more information about the symptoms of papillary, follicular, medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancer.

Causes of thyroid cancer

We do not know what causes thyroid cancer in most people. But there are some things that may increase your risk of developing it.

The risk factors are different depending on the type of thyroid cancer you have. We have more information:

Diagnosing thyroid cancer

You usually start by seeing your GP, who will examine you. They will refer you to a hospital for specialist advice and treatment if they:

  • are unsure what the problem is
  • think your symptoms could be caused by cancer.

If they think it could be cancer, you should be seen at the hospital within 2 weeks.

The different types of thyroid cancer may be diagnosed with different types of tests.  Some of the main tests to diagnose thyroid cancer include:

  • Blood tests

    You may have blood tests to check your general health and your thyroid hormone levels.

  • Ultrasound of your neck

    An ultrasound uses sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the neck and the thyroid gland

  • Biopsy

    During a biopsy, a doctor gently passes a small needle into the lump or swelling in your neck to take a sample of cells. The doctors examine the sample under a microscope to look for cancer cells. 

You may also have some further tests. We have more information about diagnosing thyroid cancer.

Staging and grading thyroid cancer

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread from where it started. Staging helps doctors plan the best treatment for you.

Each type of thyroid cancer has different staging.  We have more information about:

Thyroid cancer treatment

The treatment you have depends on the:

  • type of thyroid cancer
  • the stage of the cancer
  • your general health.

After your test results, you and your doctor start to talk about your treatment options. Your doctor usually meets with other specialists to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a  multidisciplinary team (MDT).

The MDT look at national treatment guidelines or the latest evidence for the type of cancer you have. If you have any treatment preferences, your doctor will tell them about this.

Thyroid surgery is usually the main treatment for most types of thyroid cancer. You often have other treatment after surgery.

Different types of thyroid cancer are treated differently. We have information about:

After thyroid cancer treatment

Some people have treatment side effects that slowly improve over time, while others may have ongoing side effects. It can take time to recover after treatment for thyroid cancer.

You will have regular follow up appointments after your treatment has finished. How often you have these appointments will depend on the type of thyroid cancer you have, and the kinds of treatments.  If you have any problems or notice any symptoms between check-ups, tell your doctor as soon as possible.

You can also talk to your doctor or nurse if you feel you need some more support.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.

Getting support

You may have lots of different emotions after being diagnosed with cancer. You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

  • Call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00.
  • Chat online to our specialists.
  • Visit our thyroid cancer forum to talk with people who have been affected by thyroid cancer, share your experience, and ask an expert your questions.

Other useful organisations

There are also other organisations that can give you information and support. These include:

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our thyroid cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    British Medical Journal. Best Practice Guidelines, Thyroid cancer. 2020.

    European Society Medical Oncology (ESMO): Thyroid cancer, Clinical Practice Guidelines for Diagnosis, Treatment and Follow-up. 2019.

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). TA535: Lenvatinib and Sorafenib for treating differentiated thyroid cancer after radioactive iodine. 2018. www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ta535 [accessed May 2021].

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Reviewed: 01 June 2021
Reviewed: 01/06/2021
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Next review: 01 June 2024
Next review: 01/06/2024