Surgery for thyroid cancer
Surgery is the main treatment for nearly every case of thyroid cancer, except for some anaplastic thyroid cancers. If thyroid cancer is found by a biopsy (fine needle aspiration), surgery to remove the tumor and all or part of the rest of the thyroid gland is most often done.
In this operation, the lobe with the cancer is then removed, usually along with the small piece of the gland that acts as a bridge between the left and right lobes (the isthmus).
Lobectomy is sometimes used to treat thyroid cancers that are small and that show no signs of spreading beyond the thyroid gland. It is also sometimes used to diagnose thyroid cancer if a needle biopsy result doesn’t provide a clear diagnosis.
In this operation, the entire thyroid gland is removed. This is the most common surgery for thyroid cancer.
Lymph node removal
If the doctor suspects spread of the cancer to nearby lymph nodes in the neck, these will be removed at the same time surgery is done on the thyroid. Sometimes only one or two lymph nodes are enlarged and need to be removed, but more often, several lymph nodes near the thyroid are removed.
Risks and side effects of surgery
Patients who have thyroid surgery are often ready to leave the hospital the next day. Possible problems from thyroid surgery include:
- Hoarseness or loss of voice that may be short term or permanent.
- Damage to the parathyroid glands (small glands near the thyroid that help control blood calcium levels). This can lead to low blood calcium levels, causing muscle spasms and numbness and tingling feelings.
- A lot of bleeding or a major blood clot in the neck
- Wound infection
You will have a small scar across the front of your neck after surgery. This should become less visible over time as it heals.
Problems are less likely to happen when you have an experienced thyroid surgeon. Most doctors recommend that the operation be done by a surgeon experienced in treating thyroid cancer.
If most or all of your thyroid gland is removed, you will need to take daily thyroid hormone replacement pills.
For more about cancer surgery in general, see A Guide to Cancer Surgery.
Last Medical Review: 02/27/2014
Last Revised: 02/12/2016