What are papillary and follicular 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.

There are different types of thyroid cancer. Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer are called differentiated thyroid cancer (DTC). Papillary is more common than follicular. About 9 in 10 thyroid cancers (90%) are DTC. They are often treated in the same way. Most people with DTC can be cured.

The information here is about papillary and follicular thyroid cancer. We also have information about medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancer.

Symptoms of papillary and follicular thyroid cancer

In most people, thyroid cancer develops very slowly. The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a painless lump in the neck. The lump usually gets slowly bigger. Most thyroid lumps are not cancerous (benign) but it is important to get any lump checked.

We have more information about the other symptoms of thyroid cancer.

Causes of papillary and follicular 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. These are called risk factors. Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get thyroid cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, it does not mean you will not get cancer.

We have more information about the causes of thyroid cancer.

Diagnosing papillary and follicular 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.

You should be seen at the hospital within 2 weeks.

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.

  • Biopsy

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

You may also have some further tests. We have more information about other tests you may have to diagnose thyroid cancer.

Staging of papillary and follicular thyroid cancer

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread beyond the area of the body where it started.

We have more information about staging of papillary and follicular thyroid cancer.

Treating papillary and follicular thyroid cancer

The treatment you have depends on the stage of the cancer and your general health. Most people with follicular and papillary thyroid cancers are cured with treatment.

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Treatments may include:

  • Surgery

    Surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland is usually the main treatment. 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.

  • Radioactive iodine

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

  • External beam radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy is sometimes used to treat papillary and follicular thyroid cancer.

  • Targeted therapies

    Targeted therapies are newer drugs that target the differences between cancer cells and normal cells. They are used when thyroid cancer has spread and is no longer responding to radioactive iodine treatment.

  • Chemotherapy

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

We have more information about treating thyroid cancer.

After treatment for papillary and follicular thyroid cancer

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. If you have any problems or notice any symptoms between check-ups, tell your doctor as soon as possible.

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