Thyroid Cancer Treatment Recurrence

Sometimes, even after successful thyroid cancer treatment and removal of the complete thyroid, patients can experience a relapse. Most often, a thyroid cancer recurrence develops where the thyroid used to be, due to microscopic pieces of thyroid tissue left behind after surgery. Cancer can also appear again elsewhere in the body, including in the:

  • Bones
  • Central nervous system
  • Lungs
  • Lymph nodes.

Likelihood of a Thyroid Cancer Recurrence

The chance of a thyroid cancer recurrence depends on the stage of the disease at first diagnosis. The following are cancer recurrence rates ten years after diagnosis:

  • Stage I: 10 percent chance of a recurrence of cancer
  • Stage II: 20 percent possibility of a cancer recurrence
  • Stage III: 30 percent chance of a cancer recurrence.

As many as 35 percent of patients with papillary and follicular thyroid cancers may experience a cancer recurrence within 40 years after treatment; around two-thirds of these take place within the first ten years after treatment.

Thyroid cancers are usually slow-growing, and it may take 10 to 20 years before doctors find any evidence of a cancer recurrence. An early diagnosis is associated with a better prognosis, so maintaining a regular schedule of follow-up exams is important for thyroid cancer patients.

Treating a Recurrence of Cancer

Treatment for a thyroid cancer recurrence depends on where the new cancerous cells develop. A recurrence of cancer in the thyroid area may be treated with surgery or radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy. If the cancerous cells have spread to multiple places throughout the body, doctors may employ chemotherapy.

  • The type of thyroid cancer recurrence also dictates the best treatment.
  • Anaplastic: Chemotherapy and external beam radiation are often used in combination. These cells don’t take up iodine, so RAI therapy is not effective.
  • Follicular or papillary: Surgery (if possible) and/or RAI therapy for both localized and metastasized cancers. These forms of thyroid cancer generally absorb iodine, so will respond well to RAI treatment.
  • Medullary: Surgery for cancer recurrence in the neck. Medullary cancer cells don’t absorb iodine, so RAI therapy is not an option.

External radiation and chemotherapy are also used to treat a thyroid cancer recurrence that won’t respond to iodine and isn’t a likely candidate for surgery. Many patients dealing with a thyroid cancer recurrence choose to participate in clinical trials to take part in the ongoing research for new ways to treat and cure the disease.


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American Cancer Society Staff. (2009). Thyroid cancer: Treatment of thyroid cancer by stage. Retrieved March 30, 2010, from American Cancer Society Web site: CRI_2_4_4X_Treatment_of_Thyroid_Cancer_by_Stage_43.asp?rnav=cri.

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