What are The 4 Main Types of Thyroid Cancer?

Thyroid cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow uncontrollably in the thyroid gland. While relatively rare compared to other cancers, thyroid cancer rates have steadily increased over the past few decades.

Understanding the different types of thyroid cancer is critical for early diagnosis and effective treatment. This guide will examine the four main subtypes, looking at their distinguishing characteristics, diagnosis, treatment options, and prognosis.

Overview of the Thyroid Gland

The thyroid gland produces three hormones – triiodothyronine (T3), thyroxine (T4), and calcitonin. These hormones regulate vital bodily functions like heart rate, body temperature, and metabolism.

Thyroid cancer begins when mutations occur in thyroid cells, causing unchecked cell growth and tumor formation. It is more common in women than men, and risk increases with radiation exposure or family history.

Types of Thyroid Cancer

1. Papillary Thyroid Cancer

Papillary thyroid cancer (PTC) is the most prevalent type, accounting for 80-85% of all thyroid cancer cases. It occurs when abnormal follicular cells mutate and form a malignant tumor.

PTC often presents as a painless lump or nodule in the thyroid. Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck may also be indicative. Diagnosis typically involves a physical exam, biopsy, ultrasound, and blood tests.

For treatment, most patients undergo total thyroidectomy along with radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy to destroy any remaining thyroid tissue. Thyroid hormone medication replaces missing hormones. The 5-year survival rate is almost 100% for localized PTC.

2. Follicular Thyroid Cancer

Follicular thyroid cancer (FTC) also originates from follicle cells but is less common than PTC, accounting for 10-15% of cases.

Diagnosis can be tricky as FTC nodules usually don’t have distinguishing features. Fine needle aspiration and blood tests help confirm diagnosis.

Compared to PTC, FTC is more prone to spread via the bloodstream to other organs like the lungs or bones. Treatment involves total thyroidectomy and RAI. For minimally invasive FTC, the outlook is very positive with almost 100% 5-year survival.

3. Medullary Thyroid Cancer

Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) arises from parafollicular C cells producing the hormone calcitonin. MTC accounts for 5-8% of thyroid cancers.

Over 80% of cases are sporadic, while 20% are hereditary linked to gene mutations like RET. Family history is a major risk factor.

Since MTC secretes calcitonin, blood tests measure levels for diagnosis. Treatment is total thyroidectomy often combined with lymph node removal. External beam radiation may be used if cancer spreads.

MTC can be aggressive with a poorer prognosis than PTC or FTC. But if caught early, the survival rate is close to 90%.

4. Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the rarest and most serious subtype, representing only 2% of cases. It is an undifferentiated, highly aggressive cancer formed from follicular cells.

Often emerging from an existing papillary or follicular cancer, anaplastic thyroid cancer is difficult to diagnose and treat. It spreads rapidly into surrounding tissues and is resistant to chemotherapy and radiation.

Sadly, the 5-year survival rate is less than 10%. Palliative surgery may help prolong life in some patients when diagnosed early.

Comparing the Subtypes

While sharing an origin in thyroid follicular cells, the four main subtypes have marked differences:

  • Prevalence: PTC > FTC > MTC > Anaplastic
  • Prognosis: PTC > FTC > MTC > Anaplastic
  • Aggressiveness: Anaplastic > MTC > FTC > PTC
  • Origins: PTC/FTC/Anaplastic (follicular cells), MTC (C cells)
  • Diagnosis: MTC (calcitonin marker), others biopsy

So in summary, PTC and FTC tend to be more treatable with better outcomes, while MTC is moderately aggressive, and anaplastic is highly lethal.


Thanks to modern treatments, thyroid cancer survival rates have improved significantly. However, every subtype presents unique risks and challenges for patients. Recognizing the differences among papillary, follicular, medullary, and anaplastic thyroid cancers allows for earlier diagnosis and more tailored care. Speak to your doctor and use quality resources to ensure you make informed decisions throughout treatment and recovery.


  1. Types of Thyroid Cancer: Papillary, Follicular and More
  2. Thyroid cancer – papillary carcinoma: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
  3. Follicular Thyroid Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
  4. Overview of Medullary Thyroid Cancer
  5. Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer

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