Regular monitoring can help identify signs of thyroid cancer recurrence. Many treatment options can help treat recurrent thyroid cancer.

The thyroid uses the mineral iodine to produce essential hormones. Thyroid cancer involves the growth of cancerous cells in the thyroid.

About 98.5% of people with thyroid cancer will survive for at least 5 years. However, survivors of this disease have an increased risk of developing another cancer, and about 20% are at risk of a thyroid cancer recurrence.

This article takes a deeper look at thyroid cancer recurrence.

Keep reading to learn about why this cancer comes back, how to treat it, and more.

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Some people have a higher risk of thyroid cancer recurrence. Factors that can increase the risk of a recurrence include:

  • being over 45 years of age at diagnosis
  • having had cancer that spread beyond the thyroid
  • being male
  • having certain tumor genes

Genetic changes may also affect the risk of thyroid cancer recurrence, such as changes in the BRAFV600E gene.

Researchers have also found that the cancer stage can influence whether thyroid cancer returns.

One 2022 study involving 829 Taiwanese people with thyroid cancer found that those with early stage thyroid cancer had around a 7% risk of recurrence. For people with advanced stage disease, the risk of recurrence was about 28%.

In some cases, it may be that cancer returns because it did not fully respond to initial treatment.

Another study analyzed 92 people receiving treatment for recurrent thyroid cancer. Researchers found that 77% did not have recurrent cancer.

The original cancer cells in these individuals had never fully gone away — their cancer symptoms had resolved after their initial treatment. However, the remaining cancer cells eventually formed new tumors.

When does thyroid cancer return?

The timing of thyroid cancer recurrence varies widely from person to person. Some may experience a recurrence only 6 months after entering remission, while others may not experience a recurrence for years or even decades.

One 2019 case study examined a 46-year-old woman with recurrent thyroid cancer who first experienced a recurrence 7 years after entering remission. She also experienced a second recurrence 27 months after treating the initial recurrence.

To learn more about the risk of thyroid cancer returning, people need to speak with their cancer care team.

The signs of recurrent thyroid cancer may look different among people. Some of the more common signs include:

Another sign of recurrence involves thyroglobulin — a protein necessary for healthy thyroid function. High levels of thyroglobulin may indicate that thyroid cancer is returning. A doctor can monitor levels of this protein through regular blood tests.

Medical professionals can also detect a recurrence through imaging scans.

When thyroid cancer returns, it typically causes tumors around the thyroid or lymph nodes in the neck. The most common method for treating these tumors is surgical removal. This treatment option is effective in up to 71% of people.

However, some who experience recurrent thyroid cancer are ineligible for surgery. Additionally, surgical techniques are not always effective.

In these cases, other treatment options include:

Some evidence suggests that ablation techniques can be equally effective as surgery. Beyond surgery and ablation, treatment for recurrent thyroid cancer may involve:

People with cancers that do not respond to conventional therapies may also enroll in clinical trials. These trials test new treatments to determine how effective they are.

Every person’s recovery journey is unique. There is no single treatment that will be right for everyone with recurrent thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer has a high survival rate. Most people who develop this disease respond well to treatment. However, it is also common for this cancer to recur.

A recurrence can happen within several months of entering remission. But it can also take years, or even decades, for thyroid cancer to come back. This is why it is important to undergo regular monitoring after recovering from thyroid cancer.

Generally, treating recurrent thyroid cancer involves surgery. However, there are many other effective treatment options available. People can speak with their cancer care team to learn more about their treatment options.