Types of Thyroid Cancer

Your thyroid gland contains two types of cells:

  • Follicular cells – use iodine to produce thyroid hormone, which helps control:
    • Heart rate
    • Blood pressure
    • Body temperature
    • Weight
  • C cells – produce calcitonin, a hormone that helps control how your body uses calcium in some animals, but has limited functions in humans. It’s an important marker that can be measured in the bloodstream, however, for a specific type of thyroid cancer called medullary thyroid cancer.

Different kinds of thyroid cancers develop from the different cells. Different thyroid cancers require different treatments. There are four main kinds of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary thyroid cancer
    • grows slowly from the follicular cells
    • the most common type of thyroid cancer (around 85 percent of thyroid cancers)
    • may occur as a single cancer or multiple cancers within the thyroid gland and may spread to the surrounding lymph nodes in the neck
    • classified as a differentiated thyroid cancer, in that its cells appear similar to healthy thyroid tissue
    • if diagnosed early, most people with papillary thyroid cancer can be treated successfully and the cure rate is very high
  • Follicular thyroid cancer
    • grows slowly from the follicular cells
    • second most common thyroid cancer (around 10 percent)
    • usually doesn’t spread to the lymph nodes, but it may spread to other parts of the body, such as your lungs or bones
    • classified as differentiated thyroid cancer, in that its cells appear similar to healthy thyroid tissue
    • if diagnosed early, most people with follicular thyroid cancer can be treated successfully
  • Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC)
    • grows slowly from C cells 
    • in some cases has a genetic basis
    • non-inherited MTC usually affects older adults and only one lobe
    • familial MTC often develops during childhood or early adulthood and often affects both lobes
    • makes up about 3 to 5 percent of the thyroid cancer cases
    • doesn’t look like healthy thyroid tissue
    • if diagnosed early, can be easier to control
    • surgery is the main treatment, because radioactive iodine and chemotherapy are not very helpful
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer (Undifferentiated)
    • grows rapidly from differentiated cancer cells or from a benign tumor
    • makes up about 2 percent of thyroid cancer cases
    • is an aggressive form of thyroid cancer that can spread quickly
    • is hard to control, but treatment is available

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