Revised 2018

Cancer of the thyroid gland is rare but increasing in incidence. Most lumps (nodules) in the thyroid turn out to be benign (non- cancerous). The most common thyroid cancers are ‘differentiated’. The majority of differentiated thyroid cancers can be treated very successfully with surgery, radioactive iodine or a combination of both.

Differentiated thyroid cancers (DTC)

  • Papillary
  • Follicular
  • Sub-types of papillary and follicular carcinomas include Hurthle cell, tall cell, insular, and columnar

Other thyroid cancers

  • Medullary, which can run in families
  • Anaplastic, which usually affects older people
  • Lymphoma of the thyroid, which also usually affects older people


  • Swelling or lump (nodule) in the thyroid or lower neck area
  • Hoarse voice
  • Difficulty in swallowing and awareness of pressure when swallowing
  • Difficulty in breathing especially when sleeping
  • Changes to a previously known nodule

If you notice a lump or swelling, even if it has been there a long time, you should see your doctor and ask for it to be investigated.


  • Physical examination
  • Ultrasound scan
  • Fine needle biopsy (FNAC) to remove cells for examination


  • Surgery - to remove part or all of the thyroid gland
  • Radioactive iodine (in some cases) - to ensure that all thyroid and thyroid cancer cells are destroyed
  • Levothyroxine - to replace missing thyroid hormone and suppress the rate of growth of any remaining thyroid cells

Note - after radioactive iodine women should avoid conceiving for six months and men should avoid fathering children for four months.

Follow-up and outlook

  • Regular check-ups long-term
  • Differentiated thyroid cancer has a high cure rate, and the vast majority of patients go on to live a full and normal life

Thyroid problems often run in families and if family members are unwell they should be encouraged to discuss with their own GP whether thyroid testing is warranted.

This Quick Guide is one in a series about thyroid disorders. Other Quick Guides are available to read and download from the British Thyroid Foundation website.

A leaflet containing more detailed information about Thyroid Cancer is also available.

The British Thyroid Foundation
tel: 01423 810093
The British Thyroid Foundation is a registered charity: England and Wales No 1006391, Scotland SC046037

Membership Information
Quick Guides

Endorsed by:

The British Thyroid Association - medical professionals encouraging the highest standards in patient care and research

The British Association of Endocrine and Thyroid Surgeons - the representative body of British surgeons who have a specialist interest in surgery of the endocrine glands (thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal)

First issued: 2008
Revised: 2010, 2011, 2015, 2018
Our literature is reviewed every two years and revised if necessary.

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