People with thyroid cancer typically have high survival rates and a positive outlook when the cancer is diagnosed early, but it can sometimes recur. The recurrence rate may vary depending on the cancer type and stage at diagnosis.

Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that develops in your thyroid gland. Your thyroid is a gland in your throat that makes the hormones your body needs to regulate your metabolism and heart rate.

Thyroid cancer has a very high survival rate, but it can sometimes recur. “Cancer recurrence” means that cancer returns after it has been successfully treated. Recurrence can sometimes happen after many cancer-free years.

The recurrence rate of thyroid cancer may vary depending on factors such as:

  • the type of thyroid cancer
  • the stage at initial diagnosis
  • how far the cancer spread before remission was reached

A 2021 study looked at 10 years of data and classified more than 4,000 participants with previous papillary thyroid cancer — the most common type of thyroid cancer — into three risk groups with the following recurrence rates:

  • Low risk: People in the low risk group had a 1.6% recurrence rate over a 10-year period.
  • Intermediate risk: People in the intermediate risk group had a 7.4% recurrence rate over a 10-year period.
  • High risk: People in the high risk group had a 22.7% recurrence rate over a 10-year period.

Based on the participants in this study, those in the low risk group:

  • had 100% of their tumors surgically removed
  • had a nonaggressive type of cancer
  • didn’t have cancer spread beyond the initial tumor
  • didn’t have blood vessels affected by the tumor

People in the intermediate risk group had:

  • cancer that spread to nearby lymph nodes
  • cancer that spread to blood vessels
  • a more aggressive type of cancer

People in the high risk group had:

  • tumors that couldn’t be completely removed surgically
  • cancer that spread to distant regions of the body
  • significant cancer involvement of the blood vessels

What is the recurrence rate of other types of thyroid cancer?

According to research, the average recurrence rate of follicular thyroid cancer, the second most common type of thyroid cancer, is around 13.6%. Risk factors for recurrence include:

  • having more advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis
  • being more than 45 years of age
  • having a primary tumor larger than 40 millimeters (1.5 inches)
  • having cancer spread to the lymph nodes
  • having cancer cells left behind after tumor removal surgery

For medullary thyroid cancer, it’s estimated that the recurrence rate can be up to 50%, even if surgical removal of the primary tumor was successful.

If you have had medullary thyroid cancer, you’ll have regular follow-ups with a doctor to get your blood checked for levels of carcinoembryonic antigen and calcitonin. If these levels start to increase, you’ll have an ultrasound or CT scan done of your neck to check for any cancer recurrence.

Hürthle cell cancer is a more rare and aggressive type of thyroid cancer. Researchers estimate that cancer can recur in 12–33% of people with this specific kind of cancer.

Thyroid cancer shares symptoms with many other conditions, but getting checked out by a doctor is the best way to know if your cancer has come back. Symptoms of recurrent thyroid cancer include:

Sometimes recurrent thyroid cancer may be identified during a follow-up appointment with a doctor before you notice any symptoms.

Can you prevent thyroid cancer from returning?

Although you can’t totally prevent thyroid cancer from coming back, there are steps you can take to help lower your risk of recurrence.

A doctor can talk with you about your individual risks and any steps you can take. As far as lifestyle suggestions are concerned, it’s a good idea to:

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Treatment for recurrent thyroid cancer is usually similar to your first round of treatments, and it may include:

If you have recurrent thyroid cancer, you may also be eligible for clinical trials of new targeted therapy or immunotherapy medications. Talk with a doctor about the treatment options that are best suited to you.

The outlook for people with recurrent thyroid cancer depends on multiple factors, such as:

  • cancer type
  • tumor size
  • how far the cancer has spread
  • age
  • overall health

Data suggest that, in general, the treatment outlook for people with recurrent thyroid cancer is positive.

For many people, a second surgery, sometimes combined with other treatments such as chemotherapy and targeted medication, is successful for lasting remission. A doctor can help you understand your individual situation.

People with thyroid cancer typically have high survival rates and a positive outlook when their condition is diagnosed early, but the cancer can sometimes recur.

Recurrence is more likely if you have a more aggressive type of thyroid cancer, a tumor that wasn’t completely removed during surgery, or cancer that has spread beyond the thyroid gland.

Treatment for recurrent thyroid cancer typically involves surgery to remove the tumor, along with radiation and chemotherapy. You may also have treatments such as radioactive iodine therapy and targeted therapy. The outlook for people with recurrent thyroid cancer varies but is often positive.