Thumbnail image of: Thyroid and Parathyroid Glands: Illustration

Cancer of the Thyroid

What is cancer of the thyroid?

Cancer of the thyroid (thyroid cancer) is an abnormal growth of cells in the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is a small gland in the lower front of your neck. It takes iodine from the food you eat to make hormones. The hormones control the process of turning the food you eat into energy. If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is still thyroid cancer, and is called metastatic thyroid cancer.

There are different types and stages of thyroid cancer based on what kind of cancer cells are found, where the tumor started and where it has spread. Knowing the type and stage of thyroid cancer you have helps your healthcare provider decide on the best treatment plan for you. It is important to diagnose and treat thyroid cancer as soon as possible. The main goals of treatment are to kill the tumor cells, prevent a localized cancer from spreading, and prevent metastatic cancer from spreading more than it already has.

The greatest risk factor for thyroid cancer is a history of radiation to the head or neck. You are also more at risk for thyroid cancer if you have a family history of thyroid cancer, are female, or Asian.

What can I expect in the hospital?

Several things may be done while you are in the hospital to monitor, test, and treat your condition. They include:


  • You will be checked often by the hospital staff.
  • A cardiac (heart) monitor may be used to keep track of your heart rate and rhythm.
  • Your blood oxygen level will be monitored by a sensor that is attached to your finger or earlobe.
  • Your fluid intake may be monitored closely by keeping track of everything you eat and drink and any IV fluids you receive.
  • Your fluid output may be monitored closely by keeping track of the amount of urine and bowel movements you produce.


Testing may include:

  • Blood tests to check how well your thyroid is functioning
  • Tests to look for abnormalities in your thyroid gland, which may include:
    • Biopsy: A test in which a thin needle is put into your neck and into the thyroid gland to remove a small sample of tissue for testing
    • Thyroid scan: A series of pictures taken with a special camera after you are given medicine (radioactive iodine) to see how well the thyroid takes in the medicine
    • Ultrasound scan: Sound waves are used to show pictures of the inside of the neck and thyroid gland
    • X-rays: Pictures of the inside of the chest to check for abnormal areas
  • Tests to check if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, including:
    • Bone scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows any areas of bone where the radioactive material is being absorbed.
    • Chest X-ray: Pictures of the inside of your chest to check for cancer
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A series of X-rays taken from different angles and arranged by a computer to show thin cross sections of the neck and thyroid gland and other areas where the cancer may have spread
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A powerful magnetic field and radio waves are used to take pictures from different angles to show thin cross sections of the neck and thyroid gland and other areas where the cancer may have spread
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows areas where the radioactive material is being absorbed.


The treatment for thyroid cancer depends on your symptoms, how well you respond to treatment, your overall health, and any complications you may have. Your chance of cure depends on how far the cancer has advanced. You may need to make lifestyle changes to stay as healthy as possible, or manage other treatments you may need.

  • You will have a small tube (IV catheter) inserted into a vein in your hand or arm. This will allow for medicine to be given directly into your blood and to give you fluids, if needed.
  • You may receive oxygen through a small tube placed under your nose or through a mask placed over your face. In very severe cases, you may need a tube put into your lungs to help you breathe.
  • Surgery is the main treatment to treat thyroid cancer. Surgery may include:
    • Total thyroidectomy: Surgery to remove the entire thyroid gland
    • Lobectomy: Surgery to remove a section (lobe) of the thyroid gland where the cancer cells are found
    • Lymph node dissection: Surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck to check if the cancer has already spread. It also allows the pathologist to determine the stage of the cancer accurately. This will allow your healthcare providers to determine if you need more treatment after you recover from surgery.
  • Treatments may include:
    • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells.
    • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.
    • Biological or targeted therapy, which uses medicine designed to block the growth of cancer cells.
  • Your provider may also prescribe medicine to:
    • Treat pain
    • Treat or prevent an infection
    • Treat or prevent anemia, which means you have too few red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to your body. Anemia may be caused by your cancer, your treatment, or other problems.
    • Treat or prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
    • Help your immune system fight cancer

What can I do to help?

  • You will need to tell your healthcare team if you have new or worsening:
    • Cough
    • Drooling or trouble swallowing
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Depression
    • Deep bone pain
    • Redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from your surgical wound
    • Fever, chills, or muscle aches
  • Ask questions about any medicine, treatment, or information that you do not understand.

How long will I be in the hospital?

How long you stay in the hospital depends on many factors. The average amount of time to stay in the hospital with cancer of the thyroid is 1 to 3 days.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-12-19
Last reviewed: 2014-12-18
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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