In most cases, treatments are successful in curing or controlling papillary thyroid cancer. Surgery is the main treatment option for this disease, though doctors may also recommend radiation therapy.

Treatments for papillary thyroid cancer usually involve surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland.

People may also have radioactive iodine or radiation therapy, and in some cases, chemotherapy or targeted therapy.

This article looks at the different treatments for papillary thyroid cancer and their side effects.

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Papillary thyroid cancer is a subtype of thyroid cancer. In most cases, doctors will use treatments that aim to cure this disease.

If curing thyroid cancer is less likely, treatments aim to prevent the condition from spreading or returning.

In such cases, treatment will instead focus on relieving symptoms.

People with papillary thyroid cancer may have surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland.

Surgery is the main treatment option for most cases of thyroid cancer. These surgical techniques include:

  • Thyroidectomy: A thyroidectomy removes all or almost all of the thyroid gland. This is the most common type of surgery for thyroid cancer.
  • Lobectomy: A lobectomy removes part of the thyroid gland that contains the cancer. This may be suitable for small tumors and cancers that have not spread outside of the thyroid.
  • Lymph node removal: This type of surgery removes lymph nodes in the neck if they are enlarged or cancerous.

Anyone who has a thyroidectomy will need to take daily thyroid hormone medication for the rest of their life.

Learn more about thyroid gland removal.

Risks and side effects

Risks and side effects of thyroid surgery may include:

Thyroid tissue is the only part of the body that absorbs iodine.

People take radioactive iodine (RAI) by mouth. The substance collects in thyroid tissue and any thyroid cancer cells in the body. The radiation in the iodine kills the cancer cells without harming the rest of the body.

People may have RAI to get rid of any remaining thyroid cancer after surgery. They will typically take it 6–12 weeks after surgery.

Individuals may have radioactive iodine to treat stages 1–4 of papillary thyroid cancer.

Risks and side effects

The potential risks and side effects of RAI therapy may include:

People will give off radiation for a period of time after RAI therapy. Therefore, to protect others, they may need to stay in the hospital or isolate for a few days after treatment.

In many cases, surgery and RAI therapy will effectively treat papillary thyroid cancer.

Explore where you should stay after radioactive iodine treatment.

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) uses a machine to deliver a radiation beam to destroy cancer cells.

According to the American Cancer Society, people may have EBRT if a tumor does not absorb iodine and has spread outside the thyroid.

Doctors may also use it alongside other treatments to reduce the risk of the cancer returning. They may do this for people whose cancer has spread beyond the thyroid gland and younger individuals with aggressive cancer.

Doctors can use EBRT as an adjuvant therapy — which comes after the initial treatment — for thyroid cancer.

They will use the technique to help prevent the disease from recurring after surgery.

It is particularly suitable for older adults with cancer that spreads beyond the thyroid and in younger patients with aggressive forms of the disease that may have spread following surgery.

People may have EBRT 5 days a week over the course of several weeks. The technique does not cause pain and is similar to having an X-ray.

Risks and side effects

Possible risks and side effects of radiation therapy may include:

Chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells or prevent them from dividing and multiplying.

People may have chemotherapy orally or intravenously, the latter of which enters the bloodstream to target the whole body.

Doctors do not usually need to use this approach for thyroid cancer, as other treatments may be more effective.

However, they may recommend chemotherapy alongside other treatments in people with advanced thyroid cancer.

Risks and side effects

Possible side effects and risks of chemotherapy may include:

These side effects are usually temporary and go away when chemotherapy treatment stops.

Doxorubicin, Paclitaxel, and platinum chemotherapy agents are among the most common chemotherapy drugs for treating thyroid cancer.

Additionally, a person needs regular monitoring during this treatment because of the risk of side effects.

Targeted therapy uses drugs that specifically target cancer cells to attack them. They may cause less harm to healthy cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors are oral pills and a type of targeted therapy for thyroid cancer.

Doctors prescribe these drugs more commonly than traditional chemotherapy due to their effectiveness.

Additionally, healthcare professionals may recommend immunotherapy-targeted therapy.

Risks and side effects

Possible risks and side effects of targeted therapy may include:

Other potential treatments for papillary thyroid cancer include:

  • Thyroid hormone therapy: This blocks thyroid-stimulating hormone production to prevent cancer cells from growing.
  • Immunotherapy: A treatment to support the immune system in attacking cancer cells.
  • Watchful waiting: Doctors may carefully monitor thyroid cancer before administering treatment if they believe the risks of treatment may outweigh the benefits.
  • Clinical trials: Taking part in clinical trials can help find new and improved cancer treatments.

The main treatment for papillary thyroid cancer is surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid, depending on the stage of the disease. If people have a thyroidectomy, they will need to take thyroid hormone medication.

In addition to surgery, individuals may also have RAI or radiation therapy as adjuvant therapy to lower the risk of cancer returning after surgery. For advanced cancers, people may also have chemotherapy or targeted therapy.