Thyroid Cancer Overview

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Treating Thyroid Cancer TOPICS

Chemotherapy for thyroid cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anti-cancer drugs that are put into a vein or muscle, or are taken as a pill. Chemo drugs enter the bloodstream and go throughout the body to reach and destroy cancer cells.

Chemo seldom helps for most types of thyroid cancer, but fortunately it is not needed for most cancers. It is sometimes used for advanced cancers when other treatments are not working.

Possible side effects

Chemo drugs attack cells that are growing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body also divide quickly. These cells are likely to be affected by chemo, which can lead to side effects.

These side effects depend on the type and dose of drugs given and the length of time they are taken. Common side effects of chemo include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased chance of infections (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Fatigue (from having too few red blood cells)

These side effects are most often short-term and go away after treatment is finished. There are often ways to lessen these side effects.

Some chemo drugs may have other side effects that need to be watched. For instance, some drugs can affect heart function. Patients getting these drugs will get regular heart function tests like echocardiograms.

For more information about chemotherapy, see the “Chemotherapy” section of our website, or A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Targeted therapy drugs

While standard chemotherapy drugs are not very helpful for most types of thyroid cancer, some newer types of drugs, known as targeted therapies, can be useful. These drugs attack specific parts of cancer cells. They often have different (and less severe) side effects than chemo drugs.

Targeted drugs are not usually needed for thyroid cancer, but they can sometimes be helpful if other treatments are no longer working. You can learn more about the targeted drugs used to treat thyroid cancer in our more detailed document Thyroid Cancer.

Last Medical Review: 02/27/2014
Last Revised: 02/12/2016