What is thyroid cancer?

The thyroid is a small gland in the front of your neck just below your voicebox (larynx). Each year, about 3,400 people in the UK are diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It is more common in women than men. Like most types of cancer, thyroid cancer is more common in people as they get older.

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.

Types of thyroid cancer

There are different types of thyroid cancer. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can tell you more about the type you have.

The information on this page is about papillary and follicular thyroid cancer. These two are the most common types of thyroid cancer.

We have more information on types of thyroid cancer including medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancer, and thyroid lymphoma.

Signs and symptom of thyroid cancer

In most people, thyroid cancer develops very slowly. The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a painless lump in the neck that gradually gets bigger.

If you have any symptoms or notice anything that is unusual for you see your GP straight away.

Causes of thyroid cancer

In most people we do not know what causes thyroid cancer. But there are a number of things that may increase your risk of developing it. These are called risk factors. Having a certain risk factor doesn’t mean you will definitely get thyroid cancer. Sometimes people without any risk factors will develop cancer.

Diagnosing thyroid cancer

You will usually start by seeing your GP. If they are unsure what the problem is, or think your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a hospital to see a specialist.

At the hospital you may have some tests including:

  • Blood tests

    Blood tests are used to check your thyroid function and general health

  • Ultrasound of your neck

    An ultrasound helps the doctor to see the thyroid gland and the lymph nodes

  • A biopsy

    Different types of biopsy are used. You may have a fine needle aspiration (FNA) or a core biopsy.

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

Further tests

If the tests show that you have thyroid cancer your specialist may want to do some further tests. These may include:

  • MRI

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. You may be given a drink or injection of a dye, which allows particular areas to be seen more clearly. If you are given this, it may affect treatment with radioactive iodine. Your doctor or specialist nurse will be able to discuss this with you.

  • PET-CT

    A PET-CT scan is a combination of a CT scan which takes a series of x-rays to build up a three-dimensional picture, and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. A PET scan uses low-dose radiation to measure the activity of cells in different parts of the body.

  • Vocal cord check

    Your doctor will check your vocal cords before and after surgery to remove your thyroid gland. This is because the nerves that control your vocal cords are close to the thyroid gland and they can be damaged during surgery.

We have more information about how thyroid cancer is diagnosed.

Staging of thyroid cancer

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread beyond the area of the body where it started. Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

Thyroid cancer treatment

The treatment you have will depend on the stage of your cancer and your general health. A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Follicular and papillary thyroid cancers can usually be treated successfully and most people are cured.

  • Surgery

    Surgery is to remove all or part of the thyroid gland is usually the main treatment for thyroid cancer. Your surgeon or specialist nurse can talk to you about what to expect before and after your operation.

  • Thyroid hormone therapy

    After thyroid surgery, you may need to take thyroid hormone therapy. This is to replace the hormones that the thyroid gland normally makes.

  • Radioactive iodine

    Your doctor may suggest you have radioactive iodine after your surgery.

  • External beam radiotherapy

    Occasionally, external beam radiotherapy is used to treat follicular and papillary thyroid cancer.

  • Targeted therapies

    Targeted therapies are newer drugs that target the differences between cancer cells and normal cells. Your doctor may suggest them if your cancer comes back after other treatments.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy is not usually used to treat follicular or papillary thyroid cancer. Your doctor may suggest it if your cancer comes back after other treatments.

We have more information about treating thyroid cancer.

After treatment for thyroid cancer

The aim of follow-up care is to make sure everything is going well and to find out if you have any concerns. The appointments are usually every few months in the first year.

At your appointments, your doctor will examine you and you will have blood tests. They will explain if you need any other tests.

We have more information on follow-up care after treatment.

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:

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive changes after treatment. We have more information on leading a healthy lifestyle after treatment.

Reviewed: 31 December 2017
Reviewed: 31/12/2017
Next review: 30 June 2020
Next review: 30/06/2020