The thyroid gland is the endocrine organ most commonly affected by a primary malignancy. Thyroid cancers are usually detected as nodules found during physical examinations or as incidental findings during imaging procedures (see the ARUP Consult Thyroid Nodules topic). If a malignancy is confirmed or suspected based on cytology, or if cytology is indeterminate, pre- and postoperative histologic examination and testing for molecular markers can be used to confirm the diagnosis, differentiate between thyroid cancer subtypes, inform prognosis, and guide treatment. If a familial syndrome is suspected, germline testing may be warranted. Laboratory tests for tumor markers (including thyroid-stimulating hormone [TSH], thyroglobulin [Tg], and thyroglobulin antibody [TgAb]) are also used in thyroid cancer monitoring and surveillance. Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) entails additional testing (see Testing for Medullary Thyroid Cancer).
Quick Answers for Clinicians
It is recommended that molecular testing be considered in addition to, rather than as a replacement for, cytologic evaluation. Molecular testing is recommended only if results will influence clinical decision-making and is generally not recommended in nodules that are clearly benign or clearly malignant based on cytologic evaluation. If cytology samples obtained via fine needle aspiration (FNA) are indeterminate, molecular testing may be useful to support tumor diagnosis, stratify risk for progression and recurrence, and guide therapeutic decision-making. For more information, see Molecular Markers.
Either multigene assays or single gene molecular marker tests may be useful in thyroid cancer, although specifically designed thyroid cancer gene panels may be especially helpful to establish the diagnosis in indeterminate nodules, given that there is no single molecular test that can definitively rule in or rule out malignancy. However, panel tests are not standardized, and most mutation panel tests are proprietary and utilize different technologies (eg, next generation sequencing [NGS], RNA expression signature analysis, micro RNA [miRNA] analysis, or a combination of technologies), with their own predictive advantages and disadvantages. For more information, see Molecular Markers.
The evaluation and management of thyroid nodules are similar in children and adults. However, pediatric thyroid nodules are more likely to be malignant than adult nodules. Furthermore, some thyroid cancer treatments may not be appropriate for children. This ARUP Consult topic focuses on laboratory testing for thyroid cancer in adults; for detailed information on thyroid cancer testing in children, see the Management Guidelines for Children with Thyroid Nodules and Differentiated Thyroid Cancer from the American Thyroid Association.
Thyroid cancers may be histologically classified as differentiated thyroid cancer (DTC, which includes papillary thyroid cancer [PTC], follicular thyroid cancer [FTC], and Hürthle cell cancer); anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC); or medullary thyroid cancer (MTC). The WHO classification system includes noninvasive follicular thyroid neoplasm with papillarylike nuclear features (NIFTP). Thyroid cancer may also be poorly differentiated. Prognosis and recommended treatment vary by cancer type. In addition to histology, molecular markers may be useful to distinguish between thyroid cancer subtypes.
Indications for Testing
Testing for thyroid cancer is appropriate in individuals with:
- Thyroid nodule(s) that are indeterminate, suspicious for malignancy, or malignant based on cytology
- Increased risk of thyroid cancer (eg, due to history of radiation exposure, thyroid cancer in a first-degree relative, or genetic predisposition)
- Abnormal cervical nodes
Histology and molecular testing can be used to further investigate thyroid nodules that have been categorized as malignant, suspicious for malignancy, or indeterminate by fine needle aspiration (FNA) and cytology.
Histologic examination of thyroid tissue samples is used to establish or confirm the diagnosis of thyroid cancer, classify the cancer, stratify risk, and guide management after thyroid surgery. Histologic features may also suggest the need for germline testing for a variant associated with a familial cancer syndrome; for example, the cribriform-morular form of papillary thyroid carcinoma (PTC), characterized by distinctive histologic features, is associated with familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). Tg, thyroid transcription factor 1 (TTF-1), and PAX8 are supportive of thyroid origin of malignancy, although TTF-1 expression may be absent in some cancers (eg, anaplastic thyroid carcinoma). Parathyroid hormone (PTH) immunostaining can be used to exclude parathyroid origin. Calcitonin can be evaluated by immunostaining in MTC. For more information on immunostaining, refer to ARUP Immunohistochemistry Stain Offerings.
Molecular Markers in Tumor Tissue
Molecular markers are useful to establish malignancy if cytology samples obtained via FNA are indeterminate, and are also used in risk stratification. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends molecular diagnostic testing for nodules suspicious for follicular thyroid cancer (FTC) or atypia of undetermined significance (AUS)/follicular lesion of undetermined significance (FLUS) on FNA. Molecular markers may also guide targeted therapeutic decision-making. The appropriate specimen type (eg, fine needle aspirate or formalin-fixed paraffin embedded tissue) depends on the test to be used.
Specifically designed thyroid cancer gene panels may be especially helpful to establish the diagnosis of thyroid cancer because there is no single molecular test that can definitively rule in or rule out malignancy. Available panels include Afirma (from Veracye), ThyGenX and ThyraMIR (from Interpace Diagnostics), RosettaGX Reveal (from Rosetta Genomics/Genoptix), and ThyroSeq (from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). Several different methodologies (eg, next generation sequencing [NGS], multiplex polymerase chain reaction [PCR], and messenger RNA [mRNA] gene expression) may be used for these panel tests. In many cases, these molecular panel tests are based on proprietary algorithms, involve in-house interpretation, and are not standardized, making it difficult to compare one assay with another.
|Type of Tumor (WHO Classification)||Molecular Markers||Clinical Implications|
Classical: BRAF V600E, RET/PTC fusion, NTRK fusion, ALK fusion, 1q amplification
Follicular variant: BRAF K601E, RAS, PAX8/PPARc, EIF1AX, THADA fusion, 22q deletion
Tall, columnar, hobnail, and solid variants: BRAF V600E, 1q amplification, TERT promoter, TP53, PIK3CA, CTNNB1
Cribriform morular variant: consider germline testing for FAP (APC germline variants)
Most common thyroid cancer
Nonaggressive variants have excellent prognosis
Cancers with BRAF V600E variant are more aggressive:
Most fatal non-ATC thyroid cancers are PTC with BRAF or RAS variants with other pathogenic variants
RAS (without BRAF)
Generally classified as indeterminate by cytology
Low risk (indolent behavior)
Histologic diagnosis with strict criteria (not cytologic diagnosis)
Mutation profile not specific
Molecular testing is used to suggest alternate diagnosis, not to confirm diagnosis of NIFTP
RAS, PAX8/PPARc, PTEN, PIK3CA, TSHR, TERT promoter, CNA
Consider germline testing for PTEN hamartoma tumor syndromes, if supported by clinical presentation
Second most common thyroid cancer
More common in iodine-deficient patients and in older populations than is PTC
Generally less aggressive
|Hürthle cell||RAS, EIF1AX, PTEN, TP53, CNA, mtDNA, GRIM-19||
More aggressive and more likely to recur than FTC
In contrast with FTC, disseminates lymphatically as well as hematogenously
|Poorly differentiated||RAS, TERT promoter, TP53, PIK3CA, PTEN, CTNNB1, AKT1, EIF1AX, ALK fusion, histone methyltransferases, switch/sucrose nonfermentable chromatin remodeling complex||
Currently being researched
May arise from well-differentiated carcinomas
Intermediate clinical behavior (between well-differentiated carcinomas and anaplastic carcinoma)
|ATC||BRAF, RAS, TERT promoter, TP53; NTRK and ALK rearrangements||
Very aggressive; poor prognosis
Cancers with BRAF V600E variant can be treated with BRAF plus MEK inhibitor combination
Variants in other genes (eg, ALK) may also be targetable
May arise from well-differentiated carcinomas
TTF-1 IHC negative
Consider germline testing for RET-associated MTC syndromes in young patients and/or those with suggestive family history
RET and RAS are expressed in the majority of MTCs
Most sporadic MTCs with distant metastases have somatic RET mutations (often RET M918T)
Somatic RET mutations are associated with more aggressive tumors
Somatic RET testing is recommended if treatment with selective RET inhibitors is planned
Cabozantinib may have clinical benefit for tumors with RET M918T or RAS variants
ATC, anaplastic thyroid cancer; NIFTP, noninvasive follicular thyroid neoplasm with papillarylike nuclear features
Germline Genetic Testing
Follicular thyroid cancer may occur in individuals with PTEN hamartoma tumor syndrome and pathogenic variants in the PTEN gene; if the thyroid has the characteristic appearance of the syndrome, genetic counseling is recommended.
For more information on germline genetic testing in MTC (eg, RET and RAS mutations), see the Testing for Medullary Thyroid Cancer section.
Monitoring and Surveillance
Monitoring and surveillance for recurrence in thyroid cancer consists of a combination of imaging and laboratory tests. Follow-up laboratory tests include tests for tumor markers such as TSH, Tg, and TgAb; calcitonin and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) are specific tumor markers used in MTC.
Serum TSH measurement after withdrawal of levothyroxine is recommended before RAI. Serum TSH measurements are recommended at least every 12 months after thyroid cancer treatment in patients receiving thyroid hormone therapy to guide dosing and to ensure TSH is maintained within the appropriate target range.
Serum Thyroglobulin and Antithyroglobulin Antibodies
Serum Tg is the primary tumor marker test for recurrence after thyroid cancer treatment. An undetectable level of Tg has a high negative predictive value for recurrence. In addition to its use for predicting recurrence, serum Tg may be used to assess the success of treatment, predict the likelihood of identifying metastatic thyroid cancer, predict the likelihood of successful remnant ablation, predict the risk of mortality, and guide clinical management and decision-making. Simultaneous measurement of the tumor marker TgAb with Tg is required because TgAb may interfere with Tg tests; thus, the presence of TgAb makes Tg values uninterpretable. Tg may either be measured in response to TSH stimulation or without stimulation. High-sensitivity Tg can be used instead of TSH-stimulated Tg to verify the absence of thyroid cancer. Because Tg assays are not fully standardized and harmonized, the same assay should be used for all Tg measurements throughout follow-up. Standalone measurement of TgAb over time may also provide useful information, given that TgAb may increase in the presence of recurrent cancer and tends to decrease if therapy was successful. However, TgAb assays are also prone to interference and a lack of standardization.
The European Society for Molecular Oncology (ESMO) and NCCN recommend that follow-up schedules and techniques be customized according to the type of cancer, type of treatment, response to treatment, and risk level. The American Thyroid Association (ATA) recommends measurement of serum Tg every 6-12 months during initial follow-up, or more frequently in high-risk patients. Serum Tg can be measured every 12-24 months thereafter in patients who have an excellent response, and should be measured at least every 6-12 months in patients at high risk or with an incomplete or indeterminate response to therapy.
See the Thyroid Cancer Monitoring and Surveillance algorithm for additional information.
Testing for Medullary Thyroid Cancer
Molecular markers for MTC are discussed in the Molecular Markers in Thyroid Cancer table above. Monitoring and surveillance recommendations for MTC are the same as for other thyroid cancers; refer to Monitoring and Surveillance section for additional information.
Confirmation of Diagnosis
Calcitonin and CEA are tumor markers that are useful in MTC, and calcitonin expression must be confirmed to diagnose MTC. If the serum calcitonin concentration is elevated, the test should be repeated. If the elevated concentration is confirmed, a calcium stimulation test is recommended. CEA is also expressed in MTC, but not in other primary thyroid cancers, so it may be particularly useful to measure CEA if a calcitonin-negative MTC is suspected. However, CEA expression is not specific to calcitonin-negative MTC but is associated with a number of other malignancies, and results should be interpreted with care. An elevated CEA result warrants ruling out coexisting CEA-expressing tumors and metastases, especially in cases of otherwise undetectable residual disease. As mentioned in the Histology section, calcitonin may also be evaluated by immunostaining in MTC.
Because calcitonin and CEA are directly related to the mass of calcitonin-secreting cancer cells, they are also useful tumor markers for prognosis. However, calcitonin is the more specific tumor marker in cases of calcitonin-expressing tumors when compared with CEA. The measurement of both calcitonin and CEA increases sensitivity for the detection of persistent disease, particularly if tumors fail to express or cease to express calcitonin. Measurement of calcitonin and/or CEA is recommended 60-90 days after thyroidectomy to assess risk for recurrence.
Calcitonin and CEA doubling times are recommended for prognosis in postoperative MTC. When both markers are expressed, calcitonin doubling time is the superior marker of MTC progression. Shorter doubling times are associated with worse prognosis. At least four consecutive measurements over a 2-year period are recommended to enable calculation of doubling time.
Germline Genetic Testing
Genetic counseling and RET germline testing are recommended for all individuals with diagnosed MTC to determine whether MTC is familial. RET testing is also recommended for relatives of individuals diagnosed with a familial form of MTC.
ARUP Laboratory Tests
Aids in histologic diagnosis of thyroid cancer
Refer to ARUP Immunohistochemistry Stain Offerings for more information
Use to assess patients for targeted variants in solid tumor cancers
Use to aid in diagnosis, identify tumor type, stratify risk of recurrence, and guide therapeutic decision-making
Polymerase Chain Reaction/Pyrosequencing
Polymerase Chain Reaction
Massively Parallel Sequencing
Recommended test to confirm a hereditary cause of thyroid cancer in individuals with a personal or family history of thyroid cancer
Massively Parallel Sequencing/Sequencing
For additional test information, refer to the Hereditary Thyroid Cancer Panel, Sequencing and Deletion/Duplication Test Fact Sheet
Tumor marker tests useful to monitor for residual/recurrent thyroid cancer
Quantitative Chemiluminescent Immunoassay/High Performance Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry
Tumor marker tests useful to diagnose and monitor MTC
Germline genetic test for familial MTC
Gharib H, Papini E, Garber JR, et al. American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, American College of Endocrinology, and Associazione Medici Endocrinologi medical guidelines for clinical practice for the diagnosis and management of thyroid nodules--2016 update. Endocr Pract. 2016;22(5):622-639.
Filetti S, Durante C, Hartl D, et al. Thyroid cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Ann Oncol. 2019;30(12):1856‐1883.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Thyroid carcinoma. Version 2.2019. [Updated: Sep 2019; Accessed: Jun 2020]
Haugen BR, Alexander EK, Bible KC, et al. 2015 American Thyroid Association management guidelines for adult patients with thyroid nodules and differentiated thyroid cancer. Thyroid. 2016;26(1):1‐133.
Francis GL, Waguespack SG, Bauer AJ, et al. Management guidelines for children with thyroid nodules and differentiated thyroid cancer. Thyroid. 2015;25(7):716-759.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Final recommendation statement. Thyroid cancer: screening. [Updated: May 2017; Accessed: Jun 2020]
Barbet J, Campion L, Kraeber-Bodéré F, Chatal JF; GTE Study Group. Prognostic impact of serum calcitonin and carcinoembryonic antigen doubling-times in patients with medullary thyroid carcinoma. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2005;90(11):6077‐6084.
Hampel H, Bennett RL, Buchanan A, et al. A practice guideline from the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics and the National Society of Genetic Counselors: referral indications for cancer predisposition assessment. Genet Med. 2015;17(1):70-87. Reaffirmed with Addendum: Genet Med. 2019;21(12):2844.
Smallridge RC, Ain KB, Asa SL, et al. American Thyroid Association guidelines for management of patients with anaplastic thyroid cancer. Thyroid. 2012;22(11):1104-1139.
Wells SA, Asa SL, Dralle H, et al. Revised American Thyroid Association guidelines for the management of medullary thyroid carcinoma. Thyroid. 2015;25(6):567-610.