Chemotherapy for thyroid cancer

Last medical review:

Chemotherapy uses drugs that are cytotoxic to destroy cancer cells. Cytotoxic means the drugs are poisonous to all cells in your body – so these drugs destroy cancer cells, but they can also harm healthy cells. With most types of chemotherapy, the drugs travel through the blood to reach and destroy cancer cells all over the body, including cells that may have broken away from the primary tumour. This is described as systemic therapy.

Chemotherapy is sometimes used to treat thyroid cancer. If you have chemotherapy, your healthcare team will use what they know about the cancer and about your health to plan the drugs, doses and schedules.

Chemotherapy may be the only treatment you have or it may be used along with other cancer treatments. You may have chemotherapy to:

  • treat anaplastic thyroid cancer
  • treat metastatic medullary thyroid cancer

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be given during the same period to treat anaplastic thyroid cancer. This is called chemoradiation.

Chemotherapy drugs used for thyroid cancer

Chemotherapy drugs that may be used for thyroid cancer include:

  • dacarbazine
  • doxorubicin (Adriamycin)
  • paclitaxel
  • docetaxel
  • cisplatin
  • vincristine
  • cyclophosphamide
  • streptozocin
  • fluorouracil

Chemotherapy is usually given intravenously (through a needle into a vein). Depending on the drugs used, it is given every week or every 3 to 4 weeks. How long chemotherapy is used depends on any side effects you have and how severe they are. It is continued as long as there is evidence of a favourable response.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Side effects of chemotherapy will depend mainly on the drug, dose, how it's given and your overall health. Tell your healthcare team if you have side effects that you think are from chemotherapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Common side effects of chemotherapy drugs for thyroid cancer include:

Find out more 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.

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

Expert review and references

  • Shereen Ezzat, MD, FRCPC, FACP
  • Bible KC, Kebebebew E, Brierley J, Brito JP, Cabanillas ME et al. 2021 American Thyroid Association guidelines for management of patients with anaplastic thryoid cancer. Thyroid. 2021: 31(3): 337–386. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/epdf/10.1089/thy.2020.0944.
  • American Cancer Society. Treating Thyroid Cancer . 2021: www.cancer.org.
  • HealthLinkBC. Thyroid Cancer. 2019: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/.
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  • Alberta Health Services. MyHealth Alberta.ca: Thyroid Cancer. Government of Alberta; https://myhealth.alberta.ca/.
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  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Cancer.net: Thyroid Cancer. 2021: https://www.cancer.net/.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Guidelines for Patients: Thyroid Cancer. 2020.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Thyroid Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) – Patient Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2021: https://www.cancer.gov/.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Thyroid Carcinoma (Version 3.2021). 2021: https://www.nccn.org/home.
  • Kotwal A, Davidge-Pitts CJ, Thompson GB. Thyroid Tumors. DeVita VT Jr., Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2019: 81:1326–1337.