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Treatment Options for Thyroid Cancer

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No one wants to hear from her doctor that the cause of her symptoms is thyroid cancer, a cancer that an estimated 48,020 people were diagnosed with in 2011, according to the National Cancer Institute. Women are three times more likely to have this type of cancer, noted Ceders-Sinai.

Several types of thyroid cancer exist, which may cause symptoms such as an enlargement of the thyroid gland, voice changes, difficulty swallowing and neck-swelling. The treatment that the patient receives depends on the type of thyroid cancer she has, as well as other factors, such as her age, the size of the nodule, and if the cancer has spread to other parts of her body.


The National Cancer Institute noted that most patients with thyroid cancer undergo surgery. Depending on the individual case, the patient may have part of her thyroid removed or all of her thyroid removed.

A total removal is called a thyroidectomy, which can be used with all the types of thyroid cancer. The surgeon makes an incision in the patient’s neck to gain access to the thyroid gland. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the surgeon may also remove the lymph nodes.

Some patients may undergo a lobectomy, in which the surgeon removes one lobe of the thyroid gland and the isthmus. This type of surgery is used to treat papillary thyroid cancer and follicular thyroid cancer.

In cases in which the parathyroid gland is surgically removed, patients may take calcium and vitamin D supplements for the rest of their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute. Side effects may occur with this treatment, including vocal cord paralysis and a risk of infection or bleeding.

Radioactive Iodine Therapy

After undergoing surgery, patients with thyroid cancer may receive radioactive iodine treatment. This type of thyroid cancer treatment may be used in cases of follicular thyroid cancer, papillary thyroid cancer, cancer that spreads to other areas of the body or recurrent thyroid cancer.

Radioactive iodine therapy is administered orally, either in liquid or capsule form. Two weeks before starting this treatment, patients follow a low-iodine diet for two weeks.

Cedars-Sinai noted that patients are hospitalized for two days and kept in isolation to prevent environmental contamination. Several side effects are possible with radioactive iodine therapy, including dry eyes, altered sense of smell or taste, nausea, dry mouth and pain in the chest and neck.

Thyroid Hormone Treatment

Patients who have had part or their entire thyroid removed will need to take synthetic thyroid hormones. Patients with follicular thyroid cancer or papillary thyroid cancer may also use synthetic thyroid hormones as treatment.

The synthetic hormones suppress thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH, production. This helps in cancer treatment as high levels of TSH may stimulate remaining cancer cells to produce, according to the MayoClinic.com. Patients on this treatment will need to have blood tests for their thyroid hormones to find the right dose.

The side effects of thyroid hormone treatment depends on the dose. Patients receiving too much can have weight loss, chest pain and a fast heart rate, while patients receiving too little can have weight gain, dry skin and fatigue.


Patients with anaplastic thyroid cancer may undergo chemotherapy. Patients with medullary thyroid cancer may also receive chemotherapy to relieve their symptoms, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Chemotherapy is administered with an injection into the patient’s vein. Several side effects may occur with chemotherapy for thyroid cancer, including mouth sores, hair loss, nausea, hair loss and vomiting.

External Radiation Therapy

With external radiation therapy, radioactivity is administered through a high energy X-ray machine. Administration is about five minutes a session, five days a week, over six to eight weeks. Side effects are possible, including difficulty swallowing, fatigue, hoarseness and redness.

Other Treatment Options for Thyroid Cancer

Cedars-Sinai noted that patients who do not respond to treatments may take medications that target biochemical abnormalities. However, these treatments are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

New research is always being done to find new treatments for cancer. To test these new treatment options, clinical trials are done. The National Cancer Institute has a page for active thyroid cancer clinical trials, which can show content for both patients and health care professionals. Because these are clinical trials, there are additional risks that patients should discuss with their doctors.


National Cancer Institute. Thyroid Cancer Home Page. Web. 9 January 2012

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Thyroid Cancer. Web. 9 January 2012

Cedars-Sinai. Thyroid Cancer Treatment. Web. 9 January 2012

National Cancer Institute. What You Need to Know About Thyroid Cancer: Treatment. Web. 9 January 2012

MayoClinic.com. Thyroid Cancer: Treatment and Drugs. Web. 9 January 2012

Reviewed January 9, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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