Before and after surgery for thyroid cancer

Information about what happens before surgery for thyroid cancer, and what to expect afterwards.

Before your operation for thyroid cancer

If you are having surgery for:

you may visit a pre-assessment clinic before your operation. At the clinic, you will have some tests to check your general health. These may include:

You will see a member of the surgical team. In some hospitals you may also see a specialist nurse. They will talk to you about your operation. This is a good time to ask questions and talk about any concerns you have.

You will see the doctor who gives you your anaesthetic (the anaesthetist) either at a clinic or when you are admitted to hospital.

You are usually admitted to hospital on the morning of your operation.

Checking your vocal cords

Before and after surgery, a doctor may check your vocal cords. This is because the nerves that control your vocal cords are close to the thyroid gland. The doctor may use a local anaesthetic spray to numb your nose and throat.

Then they will pass a thin, flexible tube with a small camera at the end (nasendoscope) through your nose to look at how your vocal cords move. This can be a little uncomfortable, but it should not be painful.

You may be asked to avoid eating or drinking for a few hours after the test, until the local anaesthetic wears off.

Smoking

If you smoke, it is important to try to try to give up before your operation. This will help reduce your risk of problems such as a chest infection. It will also help your wound heal after the operation. Your GP or practice nurse can give you advice.

Needing help at home

If you think you might need help when you go home after your operation, tell the nurses at the pre-assessment clinic. They can help you plan this in plenty of time.

Stockings to prevent blood clots

The nurses will give you elastic stockings (TED stockings) to wear during and after the operation. These help to prevent blood clots forming in your legs.

After your operation for thyroid cancer

After your operation, the nurses on the ward will help you to lie in an upright position, supported by pillows. This helps to reduce swelling in your neck area. They will regularly check your:

  • blood pressure
  • pulse
  • oxygen levels.

Between 6 and 24 hours after your operation, they will take a blood sample to check your calcium levels.

The nurses will encourage you to start moving about as soon as possible. You should have a nurse with you the first time you get out of bed, as you may feel drowsy and dizzy. If you need to stay in bed, they will encourage you to do regular leg movements and deep-breathing exercises. A physiotherapist or nurse will explain these exercises.

Drips and drains

While you are unable to drink, you may have a drip (intravenous infusion) into your arm to give you fluids. This can be removed when you are drinking enough.

You may have 1 or 2 tubes (drains) to remove fluid from your wound. These are usually taken out within 24 to 48 hours.

Your surgeon will use stitches to close your wound. Sometimes they use dissolvable stitches. If you have stitches that need to be removed, the nurses will tell you when and where this will happen.

Pain and discomfort

You will probably have some pain or discomfort after your operation. Your doctor will give you painkillers to help. If you are still sore, tell your nurse so that they can change the type of painkillers you get.

The skin on your neck up to your jawline might feel numb after surgery. This is caused by the local anaesthetic used during surgery.

Your neck will feel stiff after surgery. Your nurse, surgeon or physiotherapist will show you some neck exercises to help with this. The physiotherapist may give you some exercises to continue at home.

Eating and drinking

You should be able to start drinking an hour or so after your operation. You may find it painful to swallow solid foods at first. You may need to start by eating soft foods. Over the next 2 to 3 days you should find it easier to swallow and you can start eating solid foods. The nurses or a dietitian will discuss this with you before you go home. It is important to have a balanced diet. If you are finding it difficult to eat, nutritious drinks are a good way to supplement your diet.

Going home

Most people are ready to go home about 1 to 2 days after their operation. If you think you might have problems when you go home, tell your nurse or the social worker when you are admitted to the ward. For example, you might have problems if you live alone or you have several flights of stairs to climb. The nurse or social worker can arrange help before you leave hospital.

Some people take longer than others to recover from their operation. If you have any problems, tell your nurse, cancer doctor or GP. You can also talk to one of our cancer support specialists They can help support you and help you contact a counsellor or local cancer support group. You can call them on 0808 808 00 00.

Appointment

You will be given an appointment for a post-operative check-up. Most hospitals send the appointment letter to your home after you have left hospital. Some may give you the date of the appointment before you go home.

At your appointment, your doctor will talk with you about the results of your surgery and if you need any further treatment. It is also a good time to ask any questions and discuss any concerns you may have.

Driving

Your doctor will tell you when it is safe for you to start driving after your surgery. When you start driving, you should make sure that you do not have any side effects of painkillers. You should also make sure you can turn your neck in all directions. You may need to tell your insurance company that you have had thyroid surgery. Some policies give time limits for not driving after surgery.

Getting back to work

Everyone recovers from surgery differently. Most people can return to work within a few weeks of having thyroid surgery. But you may need more time if your work involves:

  • heavy lifting
  • standing for long periods
  • walking around a lot.

If you are not sure, you may find it helpful to speak to an occupational health nurse or your GP.

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.