Back Home

CancerHelp®

Stages of Thyroid Cancer

Key Points

  • After thyroid cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the thyroid or to other parts of the body.
  • There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
  • Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
  • Stages are used to describe thyroid cancer according to the type of thyroid cancer and age of the patient:
    • Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years
    • Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older
    • Medullary thyroid cancer for all ages
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer is considered stage IV thyroid cancer.

After thyroid cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the thyroid or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the thyroid or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
    Computed tomography (CT) scan of the head and neck; drawing shows a patient lying on a table that slides through the CT scanner, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the head and neck.
    Computed tomography (CT) scan of the head and neck. The patient lies on a table that slides through the CT scanner, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the head and neck.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy: The removal of the sentinel lymph node during surgery. The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node to receive lymphatic drainage from a tumor. It is the first lymph node the cancer is likely to spread to from the tumor. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor. The substance or dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. The first lymph node to receive the substance or dye is removed. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are not found, it may not be necessary to remove more lymph nodes.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood :

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if thyroid cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually thyroid cancer cells. The disease is metastatic thyroid cancer, not lung cancer.

Stages are used to describe thyroid cancer according to the type of thyroid cancer and age of the patient:

Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years

Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older

Tumor size compared to everyday objects; shows various measurements of a tumor compared to a pea, peanut, walnut, and lime.
Pea, peanut, walnut, and lime show tumor sizes.

Medullary thyroid cancer for all ages

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is considered stage IV thyroid cancer.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer grows quickly and has usually spread within the neck when it is found. Stage IV anaplastic thyroid cancer is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.


CancerHelp Online® is a patient education program of The CancerHelp Institute, official Content Distribution Partner of the National Cancer Institute.


Go Back

CancerHelp Online © 2017