Treatment for thyroid cancer
The main treatments for thyroid cancer are:
- Thyroid hormone therapy.
- Radioactive iodine.
Your treatment will depend on the type and stage of your cancer. The stage looks at the size of your cancer and if it has spread from where it started. By knowing the particular type and stage of the thyroid cancer, it helps your doctors to decide on the best treatment for you.
The first treatment for cancer of the thyroid is usually surgery. The type of surgery used to treat thyroid cancer includes:
- Removing all or most of your thyroid (thyroidectomy).
- Removing lymph nodes in your neck to test them for cancer cells.
Thyroid hormone therapy
If all or part of your thyroid is removed during surgery, it can no longer make thyroid hormones. You will then have to take medication to replace the thyroid hormone for the rest of your life. Without these hormone tablets, you would develop signs and symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). This includes weight gain, tiredness, dry skin and hair, and physical and mental slowness.
You will need regular blood tests for up to 6 months to find the right dose of thyroid hormones for you.
This treatment uses large doses of a type of iodine that is radioactive to help destroy the cancer cells. Other cells do not absorb iodine as much as thyroid cells. It is mainly taken as capsules, but you can drink it or it can be injected into a vein in your arm as well. It is a way of giving radiotherapy internally. (However, the standard practise of administration in Ireland is given in capsule form only.)
For 2 to 4 weeks before treatment, you will have to stop taking your hormone replacement therapy. You might also be told to eat a low iodine diet.
Unlike external radiotherapy, this treatment makes you slightly radioactive for 4-5 days. During this time you will gradually lose the radioactivity from your body in your urine, blood, saliva and sweat. This means that for a few days you will need to stay in hospital until the radioactivity has reached a safe level. The staff at the hospital will explain what is involved before and after treatment.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells in your thyroid. It aims to cause as little harm as possible to normal cells. The treatment is usually given a few minutes at a time, five days a week, over several weeks. It is used most often to treat medullary or anaplastic thyroid cancer.
For more information on radiotherapy visit our radiotherapy section.
Chemotherapy is the use of special anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is rarely used to treat cancer of the thyroid but may be used if the cancer comes back or has spread to other parts of the body.
It is usually given as an infusion through a vein in your arm. The drugs travel throughout your body and kill any cancer cells. The chemotherapy drugs most often used are doxorubicin and cisplatin.
Advanced cancer means that your cancer has spread from the area where it started. This is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer.
It is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment is given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. It can do this for quite a long time. Treatments can involve surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The palliative care team may also see you at this time. This team is there to help with any of your symptoms and to support you and your family through your treatment.
The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause you to feel very tired (fatigue). side effects from radioactive iodine treatment may cause a dry mouth, dry eyes, altered sense of taste and smell and pain where thyroid cancer cells have spread such as the neck and chest. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment.
For more about coping with side-effects, see the booklets Understanding Chemotherapy and Other Cancer Drugs, Understanding Radiotherapy, Coping with Fatigue, Diet and Cancer and Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer, all available to download from our publications section.
If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.