Treatment overview

Treatment for thyroid cancer will depend on the stage of the 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).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.

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

Surgery is usually the first treatment. You may also have treatment with radioactive iodine or thyroid replacement therapy. Occasionally, you may have external beam radiotherapy, targeted therapies or chemotherapy.

We have separate information about how medullary and anaplastic thyroid cancers are treated.

Surgery for thyroid cancer

Surgery is usually the main treatment for follicular and papillary thyroid cancer.

Your surgeon may advise you to have:

  • all of the thyroid gland removed (total thyroidectomy)
  • part of the thyroid gland removed (lobectomy or partial thyroidectomy).

Sometimes the surgeon will also remove the lymph nodes and tissue around the thyroid gland.

The type of operation you have will depend on the size of the cancer and your general health. Your surgeon or specialist nurse can talk to you about what to expect before and after your operation.

Thyroid replacement therapy

After thyroid surgery, you may need to take thyroid replacement therapy.

Your doctor may advise you to take thyroxine (levothyroxine) tablets. Thyroxine is a type of thyroid hormone (T4). It is given to:

  • replace the thyroid hormones that you will no longer be able to make if the thyroid gland has been removed
  • reduce the risk of your cancer coming back after treatment.

After surgery, until you can have radioactive iodine treatment, you may be given the thyroid hormone liothyronine (T3).

Some people are given a combination of T3 and T4.

Radioactive iodine for thyroid cancer

Radiotherapy to treat thyroid cancer is usually given as radioactive iodine (a radioactive substance given as a drink or capsule). Cancer cells absorb more radioactive iodine than normal cells, and the cancer cells die. You may have this treatment after your operation or if the cancer comes back.

Radiotherapy for thyroid cancer

External beam radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. It is used less often for treating follicular and papillary thyroid cancer. It may be used if the surgeon could not remove all the cancer or if cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

Targeted therapies

Targeted therapies uses drugs to find and attack cancer cells. They target something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive. They may be used if cancer has come back or spread to other parts of the body or if radioactive iodine treatment stops working

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is rarely used to treat cancer of the thyroid. You may have chemotherapy if the cancer comes back or, sometimes, if it has spread to other parts of the body.