Treatment for thyroid cancer

The treatment you have for thyroid cancer will depend on the stage of the cancer and your general health. Surgery is usually the main treatment.

About treatment for thyroid cancer

Treatment for thyroid papillary and follicular cancer depends 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.

This information is about papillary and follicular cancer. Most people with follicular and papillary thyroid cancers are cured with treatment.

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

We understand that having treatment can be a difficult time for people. We're here to support you. If you want to talk, you can: 

Surgery for thyroid cancer

Surgery is usually the main treatment for most types of thyroid cancer. Your surgeon may advise you to have:

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 you no longer make if the thyroid gland has been removed
  • reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after treatment.

Radioactive iodine for thyroid cancer

If you have all your thyroid removed (total thyroidectomy), your doctor may suggest you have radioactive iodine after your thyroid cancer surgery.

Radiotherapy for thyroid cancer

Sometimes, external beam radiotherapy is used to treat follicular and papillary thyroid cancer. This can be given before or after radioactive iodine treatment.

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 your cancer comes back after other treatments.

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.