How is Thyroid Cancer Treated?


Surgery to remove the thyroid gland, called thyroidectomy, is the first line of treatment for thyroid cancer. In most cases, Roswell Park surgeons use very small incisions to remove the thyroid, resulting in minimal scarring and faster recovery.

If your entire thyroid gland is removed, you will need to take medication for the rest of your life to replace the hormones that your thyroid gland produced. In some cases—depending on the size of the tumor and the type of cancer—only part of the thyroid gland is removed, in a procedure called a hemi-thyroidectomy. If you undergo a hemi-thyroidectomy, you will not need to take medication to replace your thyroid hormones.

Radioactive Iodine Therapy

If you are being treated for papillary or follicular thyroid cancer, you may receive radioactive iodine a few weeks after surgery. This is used for two purposes: 

  • For a special scan that can show whether cancerous cells remain in your body after surgery
  • To destroy those cells if they are present

You will receive a single pill of I-123 or I-131 radioactive iodine, which will be distributed throughout your body over a period of one to four days. Then doctors will use a special camera to take a scan of your body, and the image will show areas where cancerous cells may still be present. Information from the scan will determine whether or not you need additional treatment.

If you do need additional treatment, you will receive a second, higher dose of radioactive iodine, I-131, either the same day as the scan or at some point during that week. This is intended to remove any thyroid tissue that may remain in your neck after surgery—a procedure called post-surgical remnant ablation—and kill any leftover thyroid cancer cells, both in the area where the thyroid used to be and in other areas.

Questions About Safety?

Concerned about the safety of radioactive medication? It’s important to remember that this treatment has been used safely since the 1950s. The radioactive medicine is absorbed mostly by the cancerous thyroid cells that need to be killed. This treatment is an effective way to clean up any cancerous cells that are left behind after surgery.

Following radioiodine therapy, you will need to limit your contact with family members to avoid exposing them to radioactivity. After a few days, the radioactivity will mostly dissipate (fade and disappear), and you will be able to return to normal activities.


Most Roswell Park patients can come home the day after thyroid surgery—within 24 hours—and return to normal, non-strenuous activity within a week or less. Two weeks after surgery, you are free to resume strenuous activity.

About two weeks after your surgery, you’ll meet with your Roswell Park surgeon for a follow-up exam. At that point, your care will be transferred to our endocrinologist