Papillary carcinoma of the thyroid is the most common cancer of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is located inside the front of the lower neck.
About 80% of all thyroid cancers diagnosed in the United States are the papillary carcinoma type. It is more common in women than in men. It may occur in childhood, but is most often seen in adults between ages 30 and 50.
The cause of this cancer is unknown. A genetic defect may be involved.
Radiation increases the risk of developing thyroid cancer. Exposure may occur from:
- High-dose external radiation treatments to the neck, especially during childhood, used to treat childhood cancer or some noncancerous childhood conditions
- Radiation exposure from nuclear plant disasters
Radiation given through a vein (through an IV) during medical tests and treatments does not increase the risk of developing thyroid cancer.
Thyroid cancer often begins as a small lump (nodule) in the thyroid gland.
While some small lumps may be cancer, most (90%) thyroid nodules are harmless and are not cancerous.
Most of the time, there are no other symptoms.
Exams and Tests
If you have a lump on your thyroid, your doctor will order blood tests and possibly an ultrasound of the thyroid gland.
If the ultrasound shows that the lump is bigger than 1 centimeter, a special procedure called a fine needle aspiration biopsy (FNAB) will be performed. This test helps determine if the lump is cancerous.
Thyroid function tests are often normal in people with thyroid cancer.
There are 3 types of thyroid cancer treatment:
- Radioactive iodine
Surgery is done to remove as much of the cancer as possible. The bigger the lump, the more of the thyroid gland must be removed. Often, the entire gland is taken out.
After the surgery, you may receive radioiodine therapy, which is often taken by mouth. This substance kills any remaining thyroid tissue. It also helps make medical images clearer, so doctors can see if there is any cancer left behind or if it comes back later.
If surgery is not an option, external radiation therapy can be useful.
After surgery or radioiodine therapy, you will need to take medicine called levothyroxine for the rest of your life. This replaces the hormone the thyroid would normally make.
You'll likely need to have a blood test every 6 to 12 months to check thyroid hormone levels. Other follow-up tests that may be done after treatment for thyroid cancer include:
- Ultrasound of the thyroid
- An imaging test called a radioactive iodine (I-131) uptake scan
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.
The survival rate for papillary thyroid cancer is excellent. More than 95% of adults with this cancer survive at least 10 years. The prognosis is better for people who are younger than 40 and for those with smaller tumors.
The following factors may decrease the survival rate:
- Older than 45
- Cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body
- Cancer that has spread to soft tissue
- Large tumor
- Accidental removal of the parathyroid gland, which helps regulate blood calcium levels
- Damage to a nerve that controls the vocal cords
- Spreading of cancer to lymph nodes (rare)
- Spreading of cancer to other sites (metastasis)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have a lump in your neck.
Papillary carcinoma of the thyroid
National Cancer Institute: PDQ thyroid cancer treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Last modified February 4, 2016. www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/thyroid/HealthProfessional. Accessed April 4, 2016.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN clinical practice guidelines in oncology: Thyroid carcinoma. Version 2.2015. www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/thyroid.pdf. Accessed April 4, 2016.
Schneider DF, Mazeh H, Lubner SJ, Jaume JC, Chen H. Cancer of the endocrine system. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 71.
Review Date 3/16/2016
Updated by: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.