Thyroid Cancer Guide

Thyroid Cancer Treatments

Your doctor stages your thyroid tumor in order to develop the most effective treatment plan. Thyroid cancer treatment almost always includes surgery, although the type of surgery is influenced by the patient's age and tumor size. Some small thyroid cancer tumors are cured only with surgery.

  • Partial thyroidectomy or lobectomy is surgical removal of part of the thyroid gland such as the left or right side (lobe) affected by the tumor.
  • Total thyroidectomy is complete surgical removal of the thyroid gland.

thyroid cancer, anatomy, illustrated

The nonsurgical treatments summarized below may or may not be included with your thyroid cancer treatment plan.

Radioactive Iodine Therapy
Surgery may be followed by systemic radioactive iodine therapy (radioiodine I-131, pill therapy) to destroy thyroid tissue not surgically removed. Thyrogen® may be administered prior to radiative iodine therapy. Your treatment team usually includes a nuclear medicine specialist or endocrinologist, who administers the therapy as a pill. I-131 enters the bloodstream, concentrates in the thyroid gland and selectively destroys any remaining thyroid tissue and cancer cells. Thyroid cells are the main cells in the body that absorb iodine, so the radioactive iodine does not affect any other cells.

Radiation Therapy
External radiation, or external-beam, therapy is the most common type and is received as an outpatient. The purpose of treatment is to kill cancer cells, shrink the tumor, and relieve symptoms using high-energy radiation. However, external radiation is used in only rare situations for thyroid cancer.

Chemotherapy uses chemical agents (drugs) to destroy cancer cells. Unfortunately, chemotherapy kills cancerous and normal cells. Chemo is a systemic treatment—that means the drug(s) are given by pill orally or injected into a vein. This treatment is called systemic because the drug enters the bloodstream and circulates throughout the entire body. Sometimes chemotherapy is combined with external-beam radiation therapy. Chemotherapy plays very little role in thyroid cancer except for very aggressive cancers such as anaplastic thyroid cancer.

Whole-Body Thyroid Scan
Depending on the type of thyroid cancer and the treatment, a whole-body thyroid scan may be performed to help measure therapy progress. This type of test can detect if cancer has spread.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies
It is normal to feel anxious, apprehensive, and depressed as you're going through thyroid cancer treatment. Many alternative therapies can help you feel better and change your focus to a more positive outlook. Many patients have found musical or artistic self-expression beneficial. Visualization, imagery, or mind-body involvement such as offered by Tai Chi or yoga can help enhance life.

Bridget Brady, MD, FACS is the first fellowship-trained endocrine surgeon in Austin, Texas. She has a passion for and expertise in disease of the thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands. Dr. Brady has performed thousands of thyroidectomies and parathryoidectomies with a focus on minimally invasive techniques to optimize patients’ medical and cosmetic outcomes.

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