Thyroid Cancer FAQ

Q: How is thyroid cancer treated?

A: Thyroid cancer may be treated with surgery, radioactive iodine therapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of these.

The goal of surgery is to remove the tumor from the thyroid, while leaving as much of the thyroid as possible intact. Sometimes the entire thyroid may have to be removed. If this happens, patients will need to take hormone pills for the rest of their lives, to replace their own missing thyroid hormone.

The goal of radioactive iodine therapy (RAI) is to kill cancer cells using radioactive iodine. RAI is a special form of radiation using iodine. The thyroid cells are uniquely hungry for iodine and pick it up from the blood after injection. This leads to high doses within both the normal and cancerous thyroid, which will kill these cells. Other cells in the body, which do not take up iodine do not get radiation and avoid destruction. If needed, radioiodine treatments can be repeated more than once, to make sure all cancer cells are destroyed.

The goal of radiation therapy is to kill cancer cells using X-rays. This treatment is used to shrink a tumor before surgery or to get rid of any remaining cancer cells after surgery. Sometimes it is used to treat cancers that cannot be surgically removed.

Chemotherapy is used to reduce the chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body. Chemotherapy may be given after surgery to reduce this chance. If given after surgery, it is called adjuvant chemotherapy. In thyroid cancer, chemotherapy is less effective and usually used when the cancer has spread or has not responded to the radioiodine treatment.


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