Stage IV thyroid cancer—also called metastatic disease—has spread beyond the thyroid to the soft tissues of the neck, lymph nodes in the neck, or distant locations in the body. The lungs and bone are the most frequent sites of distant spread. Papillary carcinoma more frequently spreads to regional lymph nodes than to distant sites. Follicular carcinoma is more likely to invade blood vessels and spread to distant locations.
The prognosis for patients with distant metastases has historically been poor but the recent development of newer precision cancer medicines appears promising. The following is a general overview of treatment for stage IV thyroid cancer. Cancer treatment may consist of surgery, radioactive iodine treatment, radiation, chemotherapy, precision cancer medicines or a combination of these treatment techniques. Combining two or more of these treatment techniques has become an important approach for increasing a patient’s chance of cure and prolonging survival.
The information on this website is intended to help educate patients about their treatment options and to facilitate a mutual or shared decision-making process with their treating cancer physician.
Combination Therapy for Stage IV Thyroid Cancer
Treatment for stage IV thyroid cancer is usually a combination of treatment techniques including surgery and radioactive iodine treatment. Surgery for stage IV thyroid cancer typically consists of removing the entire thyroid, a procedure called a total thyroidectomy.
Total thyroidectomy is associated with a side effect called hypoparathyroidism, which is a low level of a hormone that is normally released from the thyroid called parathyroid hormone. Parathyroid hormone is important for maintaining calcium levels in the blood. Without a functioning thyroid, blood calcium levels become abnormally low, causing a variety of symptoms that typically include weakness and muscle cramps and tingling, burning, and numbness in the hands. This condition is called hypoparathyroidism. This complication may be reduced if a small amount of thyroid tissue is left, a procedure that may be referred to as a near-total thyroidectomy.
Radioactive Iodine Treatment
Iodine is a natural substance that the thyroid uses to make thyroid hormone. The radioactive form of iodine is collected by the thyroid gland in the same way as non-radioactive iodine. Since the thyroid gland is the only area of the body that uses iodine, the radiation does not concentrate in any other areas of the body. The radioactive iodine that is not taken up by thyroid cells is eliminated from the body, primarily in urine. It is therefore a safe and effective way to test and treat thyroid conditions.
However, some patients with progressive metastatic disease do not take up iodine in their thyroid cells. Treatments are more limited for these patients and they may benefit from participating in a clinical trial evaluating new, innovative approaches to treating thyroid cancer.
Strategies to Improve Treatment of Thyroid Cancer
The development of more effective cancer treatments requires that new and innovative therapies be evaluated with cancer patients. Clinical trials are studies that evaluate the effectiveness of new drugs or treatment strategies. Areas of active investigation aimed at improving the treatment of stage IV thyroid cancer include the following:
Systemic Therapy: Precision Cancer Medicine, Chemotherapy, and Immunotherapy
Systemic therapy is any treatment directed at destroying cancer cells throughout the body. Systemic therapies commonly used in the treatment of cancer include newer precision cancer medicines and chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is any treatment involving the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Cancer chemotherapy may consist of single drugs or combinations of drugs, and can be administered through a vein, injected into a body cavity, or delivered orally in the form of a pill. Chemotherapy is different from surgery or radiation therapy in that the cancer-fighting drugs circulate in the blood to parts of the body where the cancer may have spread and can kill or eliminate cancers cells at sites great distances from the original cancer. The drugs are usually given in cycles so that a recovery period follows every treatment period. Doctors have observed that chemotherapy may help relieve symptoms of advanced thyroid cancer and may increase survival of some patients.3
Surgery to remove metastases: Surgery to remove metastases from thyroid cancer has been shown to benefit some patients. In a clinical trial, metastases from thyroid cancer were removed from the mediastinum (area behind the breast bone), lung, bone, kidneys, and brain of 29 patients with advanced thyroid cancer. All patients were also treated with multiple radioiodine treatments. External-beam radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and other measures to relieve symptoms of the cancer were used.4
1 Podnos YD, Smith D, Wagman LD, Ellenhorn JD. Radioactive iodine offers survival improvement in patients with follicular carcinoma of the thyroid. Surgery. 2005;128(6):1072-6.
2 Rosenbluth BD, Serrano V, Happersett L, et al. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy for the treatment of nonanaplastic thyroid cancer. International Journal of Radiation Oncology Biology Physics. 2005;63(5):1419-26.
3 De Besi P, Busnardo B, Toso S, et al. Combined chemotherapy with bleomycin, adriamycin, and platinum in advanced thyroid cancer. Journal of Endocrinology Investigation. 1991;14(6):475-80.
4 Pak H, Gourgiotis L, Chang WI, et al. Role of metastasectomy in the management of thyroid carcinoma: the NIH experience. Journal of Surgical Oncology. 2003;82(1):10-8.