Chemotherapy for thyroid cancer

Chemotherapy uses anticancer, or cytotoxic, drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is rarely used to treat thyroid cancer. It may be given as a palliative therapy to help relieve or control symptoms of locally advanced or metastatic medullary carcinoma when other treatments have not worked or can’t be used. It may also be given for anaplastic carcinoma that is growing and spreading quickly.

Chemotherapy is sometimes combined with radiation therapy to treat anaplastic carcinoma. This is called chemoradiation. The 2 treatments are given during the same time period.

Chemotherapy is usually a systemic therapy. This means that the drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach and destroy cancer cells all over the body, including those that may have broken away from the primary tumour in the thyroid.

Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules of chemotherapy. You may also receive other treatments.

Chemotherapy drugs used for thyroid cancer

The chemotherapy drugs used alone or in combination to treat thyroid cancer include:

  • doxorubicin (Adriamycin)
  • cisplatin (Platinol AQ)
  • paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • dacarbazine (DTIC)

Chemotherapy is usually given intravenously (through a needle into a vein). Depending on the drugs used, it is given every week or every 3–4 weeks. How long chemotherapy is used depends on the amount of side effects you have.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for thyroid cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Chemotherapy may cause side effects because it can damage healthy cells as it kills cancer cells. Side effects can develop any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after chemotherapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after chemotherapy. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Side effects of chemotherapy will depend mainly on the type of drug, the dose, how long it’s given and your overall health. Some common side effects of chemotherapy drugs used for thyroid cancer are:

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from chemotherapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Information about specific cancer drugs

Details on specific drugs change quite regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Questions to ask about chemotherapy

Find out more about chemotherapy and side effects of chemotherapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about chemotherapy.

Expert review and references