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9 Thyroid Cancer Treatment Questions Answered

By Theresa Lee, MD, FACS

The thyroid gland, a small butterfly-shaped organ located in the neck, is responsible for releasing hormones that control the body’s metabolism and plays a vital role in many other critical bodily functions, including breathing, heart rate, cholesterol levels and body weight. When the thyroid gland isn’t functioning properly, it can lead to a whole slew of symptoms and serious health conditions including the development of cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 56,000 new cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year. Unlike many forms of cancer that impact primarily older patients, two out of three patients diagnosed with thyroid cancer are under the age of 55.

In most cases, surgery is the primary treatment for thyroid cancer. Preparing for surgery can be both overwhelming and scary. Read on for answers to the most frequently asked questions in order to prepare for surgery.

  1. How much of my thyroid will be removed?

Once thyroid cancer has been diagnosed, your surgeon and cancer care team will determine the appropriate treatment plan based on the cancer staging. Surgery to remove both the cancerous tumor and all or part of the remaining gland is commonly recommended.

2. What types of thyroid surgery are available?

There are a few surgical procedures to treat thyroid cancer including total thyroidectomy, subtotal thyroidectomy and a lobectomy.

A thyroidectomy refers to the removal of the thyroid gland and is the most common surgical treatment for thyroid cancer. If the entire thyroid is removed, it is called a total thyroidectomy. In some cases, most but not all of the thyroid will be removed, which is known as a subtotal thyroidectomy.

Less commonly performed is a lobectomy. This procedure involves removing only half (one of the lobes) of the thyroid gland. This procedure is used in smaller forms of thyroid cancer that isn’t likely to spread beyond the thyroid gland.

3. How does my surgeon partner with the rest of my cancer care team?

Your surgeon will work alongside the rest of your cancer care team to develop an appropriate treatment plan and will continue to collaborate and communicate with the care team throughout your treatment process. The cancer care team often includes a comprehensive group of clinical team members ranging from a medical oncologist, surgeon, otolaryngologist, endocrinologist, radiologist, nurse practitioners and social worker.

4. How long will I have to stay in the hospital after thyroid surgery?

The length of your hospital stay required post-surgery varies and depends on the type of surgery performed. In many cases you may be discharged to go home the same day as your procedure. 23 hour observation is often required after a total thyroidectomy.

5. How quickly can I return to work? Any physical restrictions following surgery?

Typically, patients may return to work within a week of their surgery. You will also be instructed to avoid lifting more than 5 to 10 pounds for one week following the procedure.

6. What are the risks or side effects of thyroid surgery?

Your surgeon will help monitor and manage side effects associated with the procedure including:  numbness, bleeding, swelling or bruising at the site, hoarseness and temporary loss of voice, infection prevention, damage to nearby glands, blood clots or vocal cord nerve injury.

7. Will I have a scar?

In general, the scar following thyroid cancer surgery is very minimal. In rare cases patients may develop keloid scarring (a raised, lumpy or rigid scar) that is caused by excess protein in the skin during the healing process. This is more common among Asian Americans and African Americans.

8. Will I need hormone replacement therapy?

Hormone replacement therapy will be prescribed if the entire gland is removed. This treatment uses daily hormone replacement supplements to stabilize and support body functions previously regulated by the thyroid gland following surgery.

9. Are additional treatments required after surgery?

Following surgery, the pathology report will be used to determine whether additional treatments are necessary, including radioactive iodine (RAI) ablation. This treatment method may be used following a total thyroidectomy to destroy any thyroid tissue that was unable to be removed during surgery. It may also be used to target thyroid cancer that has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Surgery remains the most common and effective way to treat thyroid cancers. For additional questions before undergoing a procedure, visit www.dupagemedicalgroup.com/services/surgery.

Topics and Subtopics: Cancer & General Health

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