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Staging and prognosis of thyroid cancer

Staging

Tests help your doctors work out whether you have thyroid cancer and whether it has spread from the thyroid to other parts of the body. Working out how far the cancer has spread is called staging. It is often not possible to precisely stage thyroid cancer until after surgery.

There are different ways of staging cancers. However most cancers follow a general international staging system known as TNM (tumour, nodes, metastasis).

T (Tumour) 0–4Indicates the size of the tumour. T1 cancers are smaller and remain inside the thyroid, while T4 tumours are larger or have spread to other parts of the neck.
N (Nodes) 0–1Indicates whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. N0 means the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes; N1 means the cancer has spread to the nodes.
M (Metastasis) 0–1Indicates if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or the bones (metastatic or secondary cancer). M0 means the cancer has not spread; M1 means the cancer has spread.

Prognosis

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the disease. Instead your doctor can give you an idea of what may happen based on statistics and common issues that affect people with the same type of thyroid cancer as you.

To work out your prognosis your doctor will consider:

  • your test results
  • the type of thyroid cancer you have
  • the rate of tumour growth
  • how well you respond to treatment
  • other factors such as your age, fitness and medical history.

The most common types of thyroid cancer (papillary and follicular) have a very good long-term prognosis, especially if the cancer is found only in the thyroid or is confined to the nearby lymph nodes in the neck.

Even if it has spread (metastasised) the outcome can still be very good.