Active Surveillance for Papillary Thyroid Cancer

When you find out that you have thyroid cancer, your natural reaction may be to want to get the cancerous tissue out right away. It’s a completely understandable — and normal — response. But not all thyroid cancers are alike.

If you have a small, low-risk papillary thyroid cancer, you may choose to participate in our program of active surveillance. Once called watchful waiting, this approach involves closely monitoring your thyroid cancer over time rather than treating it with immediate surgery. For low-risk cancers, our team of experts will try to determine whether you are a good candidate for this form of careful observation.

Patients in our active surveillance program receive an ultrasound every six months for two years, when we will look closely at the site of the cancer and the nearby lymph nodes to see if there is any change. After two years, if the cancer has not gotten any larger, ultrasounds can be reduced to just once a year.

We have strong evidence that only a very small percentage of these thyroid cancers progress, and they do so very slowly. For cancers that do get bigger, surgical treatment performed at a later date is just as effective.

Our experts recommend active surveillance only for small, low-risk, papillary thyroid cancers. Even for these small tumors, patients always have surgery as an option. More than 300 people with papillary thyroid cancer have chosen active surveillance at MSK, which has allowed them to avoid surgery — and its potential side effects — without increased risk to their health.

Doctor Michael Tuttle in white coat examining female patient.
MSK Study Bolsters Use of Active Surveillance for Papillary Thyroid Cancer
New findings support the use of active surveillance rather than surgery for papillary thyroid cancer.
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