Thyroid Cancer Treatment: What the Future Holds

Once a patient is diagnosed with thyroid cancer, he or she must talk to an endocrinologist to get a better view of the disease and its possible treatments. Typically, surgery is the first course of action, followed by sessions of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or target therapy to get rid of any malignant tissues that might still be in the body. In cases that require the complete removal or destruction of the thyroid, the patient will need lifelong hormone replacement therapy.

The doctor will discuss these thyroid cancer treatments in detail and advice the patient on the best course of action.

Radiation Therapy

There are 3 types of radiation therapy for thyroid cancer treatment. The first, external beam radiation, delivers radiation to the body by directing photon beams from a machine, called a linear accelerator, to the affected tissue. This treatment is typically administered to the patient up to 5 days a week for several weeks. Sometimes the patient receives 1 dose of radiation per day, while there are days when 2 doses are given. 

Second is internal radiation therapy, a one-time treatment that involves planting radioactive isotope ‘seeds’ inside the tumor by needles or catheter. Left inside the body for weeks or months, these isotope seeds decay naturally and give off radiation that kills nearby cancer cells. These don’t cause the patient any harm even if they are left inside the body.

Finally, there’s systemic radiation therapy. To thyroid cancer patients, this is commonly known as radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment. The patient ingests or is injected with radioactive iodine, which is absorbed by the thyroid to produce T4 and T3 hormones. Radioactive iodine damages the thyroid cells affected by papillary and follicular cancer types.


Chemotherapy introduces anti-cancer drugs to the body by ingestion or injection. It is not considered a primary treatment for thyroid cancer, and most cases do not require it. However, chemotherapy is combined with external beam radiation therapy when treating anaplastic thyroid tumors. Chemo drugs target cells that divide quickly, and traditional chemo agents cannot distinguish cancer cells from normal but quick-dividing cells in the body.


Except for anaplastic cancer, most thyroid cancer types can be treated with surgery. The most common surgery for thyroid cancer, thyroidectomy, refers to the removal of the thyroid gland. If the cancer has affected only 1 side of the thyroid and shows no sign of spreading, the doctor can recommend a lobectomy or the removal of a lobe of the thyroid. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the doctor can also recommend having the nodes removed. Thyroid surgery is usually followed up with RAI treatment.

Thyroid Hormone Therapy

Thyroid hormone therapy is usually done to compensate for the lack of thyroid hormones after radiation therapy or surgery. The patient has to take levothyroxine to replace the natural hormone. The therapy may help prevent some cancer types from returning. It may also slow the growth of thyroid cancer cells that still remain within the body. Some patients require thyroid hormone replacement therapy for life.

Target Therapy

Unlike chemotherapy drugs that indiscriminately damage quick-dividing cells, target therapy uses drugs that specifically target the changes within the cells that make them cancerous. Endocrinologists recommend target therapy drugs for medullary thyroid cancer, which is not affected by thyroid hormone-based treatments and RAI therapy, and follicular thyroid cancer.  The treatment can also be used with follicular cancer, but this type of thyroid cancer is primarily treated using surgery and RAI therapy. 

More Articles on Thyroid Cancer:
Thyroid Cancer Prognosis: Why Endocrine Oncologists Are Promoting Early Detection and Treatment
Endocrinologists’ Recommendations: Managing Thyroid Cancer Symptoms