Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to target and destroy cancerous thyroid cells.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about the best course of treatment.

Radiation therapy is a common and effective treatment option for thyroid cancer. Its goal is to destroy any remaining cancer cells after surgery or to shrink tumors that can’t be removed surgically.

Exploring different types of radiation therapy, how it works, and what to expect during and after treatment can help you feel more confident about your treatment choice.

There are two main types of radiation therapy that are used for thyroid cancer: radioactive iodine therapy (RAI) and external beam radiation therapy (EBRT).

The type of radiation therapy that you receive will depend on various factors, such as the stage of your cancer, the size and location of the tumor, and your overall health.

Radioactive iodine therapy (RAI)

Radioactive iodine therapy (RAI) involves taking a small amount of radioactive iodine in a pill or liquid form. The radioactive iodine is absorbed by any remaining thyroid cells, including cancer cells, and destroys them from the inside.

RAI is most commonly used in people with papillary or follicular thyroid cancer, which are the most common types of thyroid cancer.

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) uses a machine to deliver high-energy radiation beams to the affected area from outside your body. The radiation is focused on your thyroid gland or any remaining cancer cells after surgery to destroy or shrink them.

There are several types of EBRT, including:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT uses advanced computer technology to shape the radiation beams to conform to the shape of the tumor.
  • Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy (SBRT): SBRT delivers high doses of radiation to the tumor from multiple angles in a few, very precise treatment sessions.
  • Proton therapy: Proton therapy uses protons (small, positively charged particles) to deliver radiation to cancerous tissue.

The goal of radiation therapy is to deliver a high enough dose of radiation to cause significant DNA damage to cancerous cells.

Over time, the damaged cancer cells are eliminated from the body, either through cell death or the immune system’s response.

Here are some general things you can expect when receiving radiation therapy for thyroid cancer:

  • Planning session: This involves imaging studies, such as a CT scan, MRI, or PET scan, to help the radiation oncologist plan your treatment.
  • Treatment sessions: Radiation therapy is typically delivered outpatient, meaning you can go home after each session.
  • Side effects: Radiation therapy can cause side effects, which may include fatigue, skin irritation, or nausea. If you get RAI, you may need to stay in isolation for a few days after the treatment to prevent others from being exposed to the radioactive iodine.
  • Follow-up appointments: You’ll have follow-up appointments with your radiation oncologist to monitor your progress and assess the effectiveness of the treatment. You may also have imaging studies, such as CT scans or ultrasounds, to check the size of the tumor.

EBRT for thyroid cancer may require several weeks of treatment, with daily sessions lasting a few minutes each. RAI treatment generally happens over a longer timeframe. Recovery from each RAI treatment is longer due to exposure to radioactive iodine.

How many radiation sessions are needed for thyroid cancer?

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is often given in daily sessions, Monday through Friday, over a period of 5 to 7 weeks. The overall number of sessions can be around 25 to 30.

If you’re receiving RAI treatment, however, you may need to go in for treatment every three months until your cancer is gone.

For some, one session is enough to treat thyroid cancer. Although you’ll likely need fewer sessions with RAI, you may also need to be hospitalized for a few days in isolation after each session, depending on the dosage of your treatment.

The success rate of radiation therapy for thyroid cancer depends on several factors, such as the stage and type of thyroid cancer and the dose of radiation given.

One study found that the 10-year survival rate for people with thyroid cancer who received radiation therapy was 61.5%. Those whose cancer was only in their neck (it hadn’t spread to other parts of their body) had higher survival rates: 84.6% after 5 years and 80.3% after 10 years.

According to the American Cancer Society, these are the 5-year survival rates for different types of thyroid cancer (all localized, meaning that the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body):

  • Papillary thyroid cancer: over 99.5%
  • Follicular thyroid cancer: over 99.5%
  • Medullary thyroid cancer: over 99.5%
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer: 39%

Some common side effects of radiation therapy for thyroid cancer include:

  • fatigue
  • skin changes
  • swelling or inflammation
  • difficulty swallowing
  • dry mouth
  • changes in taste
  • hoarseness
  • nausea and vomiting

Is thyroid radiation painful?

The radiation treatment itself is not painful. However, some people may experience discomfort or pain in the neck or throat area as a result of the treatment.

Most people are able to resume their typical activities within a few weeks to a few months after treatment.

Some possible changes or adjustments to daily life after radiation therapy for thyroid cancer may include:

  • Follow-up appointments: You may need to have regular follow-up appointments with your healthcare team to monitor your progress and check for any signs of cancer recurrence.
  • Medications: You may need to take thyroid hormone replacement medication to replace the hormones that your thyroid gland is no longer producing.
  • Emotional support: A cancer diagnosis and treatment can be emotionally challenging. Many hospitals and cancer centers have social workers or patient navigators who can help you connect with counselors or local support groups.

Radiation therapy is an effective treatment option for thyroid cancer, as it can target cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissues.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s journey with cancer is unique, but with the right treatment plan, it’s possible to overcome thyroid cancer and move forward with hope and positivity.