Types of Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is grouped by the type of thyroid cells where the cancer begins. Papillary, follicular and anaplastic thyroid cancers begin in the follicular cells. Papillary and follicular cancers—the most common thyroid cancers—are sometimes referred to together as differentiated thyroid cancer. They have similar treatment.

Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type of thyroid cancer, accounting for about 80% of thyroid cancers. While papillary thyroid cancer typically occurs in only one lobe of the thyroid gland, it may arise in both lobes in up to 10% to 20% of cases. Papillary thyroid cancer is most common in women of childbearing age. It sometimes is caused by exposure to radiation.

Even though papillary thyroid cancer is usually not an aggressive type of cancer, it often metastasizes (spreads) to the lymph nodes in the neck. Papillary thyroid cancer treatment usually is successful.

Follicular thyroid cancer accounts for about 10% of thyroid cancers. Like papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer usually grows slowly. Its outlook is similar to papillary cancer, and its treatment is the same.

Follicular thyroid cancer usually stays in the thyroid gland but sometimes spreads to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bone. However, it usually does not spread to lymph nodes. It is more common in countries where diets do not contain enough iodine.

Hurthle cell carcinoma, also called oxyphil cell carcinoma, is a type of follicular thyroid cancer. Most patients diagnosed with Hurthle cell cancer do well, but the outlook may change based on the extent of disease at the time of diagnosis.

Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is the only type of thyroid cancer that develops in the parafollicular cells of the thyroid gland. It accounts for 3% to 10% of thyroid cancers. Medullary cancer cells usually make and release into the blood proteins called calcitonin and/or carcinoembryonic antigen, which can be measured and used to follow the response to treatment for the disease.

Sometimes medullary cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, lungs or liver before a nodule is found or the patient has symptoms. MTC can be treated more successfully if it is diagnosed before it has spread. There are two types of MTC:

  • Sporadic MTC is more common, accounting for 85% of medullary thyroid cancers. It is found mostly in older adults and is not inherited.
  • Familial MTC is inherited, and it often develops in childhood or early adulthood. If familial MTC occurs with tumors of certain other endocrine organs (parathyroid and adrenal glands), it is called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN 2). (link to more information). If you have a family history of MTC, it is important for you and your children to be tested for the gene that causes the disease.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most dangerous form of thyroid cancer. It is makes up only 1% of thyroid cancers. It is believed that anaplastic thyroid cancer grows from a papillary or follicular tumor that mutates further to this aggressive form. Anaplastic thyroid cancer spreads rapidly into areas such as the trachea, often causing breathing difficulties.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer sometimes is called undifferentiated thyroid cancer because the cells are so different from normal thyroid tissue.