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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 based on the type of thyroid cancer and the 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 patient's age and the stage of the cancer 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, such as the chest, abdomen, and brain, 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.
  • 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.
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones with cancer and is detected by a scanner.
  • 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 based on the type of thyroid cancer and the age of the patient:

Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years

  • Stage I: In stage I papillary and follicular thyroid cancer, the tumor is any size and may have spread to nearby tissues and lymph nodes. Cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.
    Stage I papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years; drawing shows cancer in the thyroid gland. Also shown are the larynx and trachea.
    Stage I papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years. The tumor is any size and may have spread to nearby tissues and lymph nodes. Cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Stage II: In stage II papillary and follicular thyroid cancer, the tumor is any size and cancer has spread from the thyroid to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bone, and may have spread to lymph nodes.
    Stage II papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years; drawing shows other parts of the body where thyroid cancer may spread, including the lymph nodes, lung, and bone. An inset shows cancer cells spreading from the thyroid, through the blood and lymph system, to another part of the body where metastatic cancer has formed.
    Stage II papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients younger than 45 years. The tumor is any size and cancer has spread from the thyroid to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bone, and may have spread to lymph nodes.

Papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older

  • Stage I: In stage I papillary and follicular thyroid cancer, cancer is found only in the thyroid and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller.
    Stage I papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older; drawing shows cancer in the thyroid gland. The tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller. Also shown are the larynx and trachea.
    Stage I papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older. Cancer is found only in the thyroid and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller.
  • Stage II: In stage II papillary and follicular thyroid cancer, cancer is only in the thyroid and the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters.
    Stage II papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older; drawing shows cancer in the thyroid gland. The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters. Also shown are the larynx and trachea.
    Stage II papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older. Cancer is found only in the thyroid and the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters.
  • Stage III: In stage III papillary and follicular thyroid cancer, either of the following is found:
    • the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters and only in the thyroid or the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to tissues just outside the thyroid, but not to lymph nodes ; or
    • the tumor is any size and cancer may have spread to tissues just outside the thyroid and has spread to lymph nodes near the trachea or the larynx (voice box).
    Stage III papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older; drawing shows (a) cancer in the thyroid gland and the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters; (b) cancer has spread to tissues just outside the thyroid gland; and (c) cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the trachea. Also shown is the larynx.
    Stage III papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older. The tumor is (a) larger than 4 centimeters and only in the thyroid; or (b) the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to tissues just outside the thyroid, but not to lymph nodes; or (c) the tumor is any size and cancer may have spread to tissues just outside the thyroid and has spread to lymph nodes near the trachea or the larynx (voice box).
  • Stage IV: Stage IV papillary and follicular thyroid cancer is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.
    • In stage IVA, either of the following is found:
      • the tumor is any size and cancer has spread outside the thyroid to tissues under the skin, the trachea, the esophagus, the larynx (voice box), and/or the recurrent laryngeal nerve (a nerve that goes to the larynx); cancer may have spread to lymph nodes near the trachea or the larynx; or
      • the tumor is any size and cancer may have spread to tissues just outside the thyroid. Cancer has spread to lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck or between the lungs.
      Stage IVA papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older; drawing shows cancer that has spread from the thyroid gland to the larynx, the esophagus, the left recurrent laryngeal nerve, the trachea, and a lymph node on one side of the neck. Also shown is the right recurrent laryngeal nerve.
      Stage IVA papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older. The tumor is any size and cancer has spread outside the thyroid to tissues under the skin, the trachea, the esophagus, the larynx (voice box), and/or the recurrent laryngeal nerve (a nerve with 2 branches that go to the larynx); or cancer has spread to lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck or between the lungs.
    • In stage IVB, cancer has spread to tissue in front of the spinal column or has surrounded the carotid artery or the blood vessels in the area between the lungs. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes.
      Stage IVB papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older; drawing shows cancer that has spread from the thyroid gland to tissue in front of the spine and has surrounded the common carotid artery and the blood vessels in the area between the lungs. Also shown are the internal jugular vein, lymph nodes, and trachea.
      Stage IVB papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older. Cancer has (a) spread to tissue in front of the spine or (b) surrounded the carotid artery or (c) spread to the blood vessels in the area between the lungs. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes.
    • In stage IVC, the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones, and may have spread to lymph nodes.
      Stage IVC papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older; drawing show other parts of the body where thyroid cancer may spread, including the lymph nodes, lung, and bone. An inset shows cancer cells spreading from the thyroid, through the blood and lymph system, to another part of the body where metastatic cancer has formed.
      Stage IVC papillary and follicular thyroid cancer in patients 45 years and older. The tumor is any size and cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones, and may have spread to lymph nodes.

Medullary thyroid cancer for all ages

  • Stage 0: Stage 0 medullary thyroid cancer is found only with a special screening test. No tumor can be found in the thyroid.
  • Stage I: Stage I medullary thyroid cancer is found only in the thyroid and is 2 centimeters or smaller.
    Stage I medullary thyroid cancer; drawing shows cancer in the thyroid gland and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller. Also shown are the larynx and trachea.
    Stage I medullary thyroid cancer. Cancer is found only in the thyroid and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller.
  • Stage II: In stage II medullary thyroid cancer, either of the following is found:
    Stage II medullary thyroid cancer; drawing shows (a) cancer in the thyroid gland and the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters and (b) cancer has spread to tissues just outside the thyroid gland.  Also shown are the larynx and trachea.
    Stage II medullary thyroid cancer. The tumor is (a) larger than 2 centimeters and only in the thyroid or (b) the tumor is any size and has spread to tissues just outside the thyroid, but not to lymph nodes.
  • Stage III: In stage III medullary thyroid cancer, the tumor is any size, has spread to lymph nodes near the trachea and the larynx (voice box), and may have spread to tissues just outside the thyroid.
    Stage III medullary thyroid cancer; drawing shows cancer that has spread to tissues just outside the thyroid gland and to lymph nodes near the trachea and larynx.
    Stage III medullary thyroid cancer. The tumor is any size, has spread to lymph nodes near the trachea and the larynx (voice box), and may have spread to tissues just outside the thyroid.
  • Stage IV: Stage IV medullary thyroid cancer is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.
    • In stage IVA, either of the following is found:
      • the tumor is any size and cancer has spread outside the thyroid to tissues under the skin, the trachea, the esophagus, the larynx (voice box), and/or the recurrent laryngeal nerve (a nerve that goes to the larynx); cancer may have spread to lymph nodes near the trachea or the larynx; or
      • the tumor is any size and cancer may have spread to tissues just outside the thyroid. Cancer has spread to lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck or between the lungs.
      Stage IVA medullary thyroid cancer; drawing shows cancer that has spread from the thyroid gland to the larynx, the esophagus, the left recurrent laryngeal nerve, the trachea, and a lymph node on one side of the neck. Also shown is the right recurrent laryngeal nerve.
      Stage IVA medullary thyroid cancer. The tumor is any size and cancer has spread outside the thyroid to tissues under the skin, the trachea, the esophagus, the larynx (voice box), and/or the recurrent laryngeal nerve (a nerve with 2 branches that go to the larynx); or cancer has spread to lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck or between the lungs.
    • In stage IVB, cancer has spread to tissue in front of the spinal column or has surrounded the carotid artery or the blood vessels in the area between the lungs. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes.
      Stage IVB medullary thyroid cancer; drawing shows cancer that has spread from the thyroid gland to tissue in front of the spine and has surrounded the common carotid artery and the blood vessels in the area between the lungs. Also shown are the internal jugular vein, lymph nodes, and trachea.
      Stage IVB medullary thyroid cancer. Cancer has (a) spread to tissue in front of the spine or (b) surrounded the carotid artery or (c) spread to the blood vessels in the area between the lungs. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes.
    • In stage IVC, the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones, and may have spread to lymph nodes.
      Stage IVC medullary thyroid cancer; drawing shows other parts of the body where thyroid cancer may spread, including the lymph nodes, lung, and bone. An inset shows cancer cells spreading from the thyroid, through the blood and lymph system, to another part of the body where metastatic cancer has formed.
      Stage IVC medullary thyroid cancer. The tumor is any size and cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones, and may have spread to lymph nodes.

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.

  • In stage IVA, cancer is found in the thyroid and may have spread to lymph nodes.
    Stage IVA anaplastic thyroid cancer; drawing shows cancer in the thyroid gland. The lymph nodes are also shown.
    Stage IVA anaplastic thyroid cancer. Cancer is found in the thyroid and may have spread to lymph nodes.
  • In stage IVB, cancer has spread to tissue just outside the thyroid and may have spread to lymph nodes.
    Stage IVB anaplastic thyroid cancer; drawing shows cancer that has spread to tissue just outside the thyroid gland. The lymph nodes are also shown.
    Stage IVB anaplastic thyroid cancer. Cancer has spread to tissue just outside the thyroid and may have spread to lymph nodes.
  • In stage IVC, cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones, and may have spread to lymph nodes.
    Stage IVC anaplastic thyroid cancer; drawing shows other parts of the body where thyroid cancer may spread, including the lymph nodes, lung, and bone. An inset shows cancer cells spreading from the thyroid, through the blood and lymph system, to another part of the body where metastatic cancer has formed.
    Stage IVC anaplastic thyroid cancer. Cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones, and may have spread to lymph nodes.

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