Thyroid Cancer: Chemotherapy
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy uses anticancer medicines to kill cancer cells. The medicines are made to attack and kill cancer cells that grow quickly. Some normal cells also grow quickly. Because of this, chemotherapy can also harm those cells. This can cause side effects.
Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. This means the medicines travel through the body in the bloodstream.
When might chemotherapy be used for thyroid cancer?
Chemotherapy is not a common treatment for thyroid cancer. It is sometimes given in combination with radiation to try to increase its effectiveness when treating anaplastic thyroid cancer. It may also be used for advanced thyroid cancer that doesn't respond to other treatments.
How is chemotherapy given for thyroid cancer?
You get chemotherapy in cycles over a period of time. That means you may take the medicine for a set amount of time and then you have a rest period. Each period of treatment and rest is 1 cycle. You may have several cycles.
Most people have chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. In some cases, you may stay in the hospital during treatment.
The chemotherapy medicines used to treat thyroid cancer are usually given into the bloodstream through an IV or intravenous catheter. Currently, the most effective medicine, doxorubicin, is still much less effective than surgery and RAI (radioactive iodine therapy).
What are common side effects of chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy attacks cells that are dividing quickly. This includes normal cells as well as cancer cells. Normal, quickly dividing cells can be found in the bone marrow, the hair follicles, and lining of the intestines and mouth. Damage to these normal cells is a common cause for side effects. Side effects will depend on the type and amount of medicine being taken.
Some of the more common short-term side effects from chemotherapy include:
Nausea and vomiting
Constipation or diarrhea
Infections from low white blood cell counts
Easy bruising or bleeding from low blood platelets
Tiredness from low red blood cell counts
Skin problems, such as dryness, rash, blistering, or darkening skin
Tingling, numbness, or swelling in hands or feet
Most side effects will go away or get better between treatments and a few weeks after treatment ends. You may also be able to help control some of these side effects. Tell your healthcare providers about any side effects you have. They can help you cope with them.
A more serious possible side effect of some chemotherapy medicines is organ damage. This can include damage to the kidneys, liver, testicles, ovaries, brain, heart, or lungs. You may have blood tests or other tests done while you’re getting chemotherapy. This is to make sure your organs are working properly and you aren’t having harmful reactions to the medicine.
Working with your healthcare provider
It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Write your medicines down, and ask your healthcare team how they work and what side effects they might have.
Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for and when to call them. For example, chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections. Make sure you know what number to call with questions. Is there a different number for evenings and weekends?
It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down physical, thinking, and emotional changes. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your healthcare team to make a plan to manage your side effects.