Improving Quality of Life for Thyroid Cancer Patients

UW Carbone Cancer Center clinician and Chief of Endocrine Surgery Rebecca Sippel, MD

The University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center focuses much of its research on reducing mortality rates of deadly cancers.


Thyroid cancer treatment and research, however, is a different story. Already with a 95 percent survival rate, thyroid cancer is one of the few diseases UW Carbone Cancer Center researchers can focus on bettering the care already offered to patients.


"Thyroid cancer is one of the few readily treatable cancers out there," UW Carbone Cancer Center clinician Rebecca Sippel, MD explains.


For example, individuals with stage one and two follicular, papillary or medullary thyroid cancer all have a near 98 percent survival rate. Occurrences of this cancer, which affects about 60,000 Americans every year, can result from a family history of thyroid cancer or a rare exposure to radiation, although most patients have neither of these risk factors.


"Our research is usually not whether or not the thyroid cancer is going to limit your life, it's whether or not your quality of life is going to be compromised by your treatment," says Sippel, who also serves as Chief of Endocrine Surgery at UW School of Medicine and Public Health.


"People hear the word cancer and they assume it's going to be like all other cancers," says Sippel. "But we're able to treat this effectively with surgery and a one-time treatment of a non-toxic medication."


Care usually involves the removal of the thyroid and possibly involved lymph nodes, according to Sippel. The patient then usually takes radioactive iodine, a pill that traps and destroys any remaining thyroid cells, whether they are cancerous or not, and also tells whether the tumor has spread. After treatment, the patient needs to be monitored for life.


Thyroid cancer often spreads to a patient's lymph nodes and if not treated at the first surgery can lead to a higher rate of cancer recurrence. By removing lymph nodes at the initial surgery, even if they don't look involved with the cancer, it may reduce the need for long-term treatment of thyroid cancer. However, because the disease does not always spread to the lymph nodes, surgery removing them could be unnecessary.


"These patients could be at risk for surgery complications and worse long-term outcomes," Sippel says. Sippel and her research team concentrate on improving surgical procedures that are both comfortable for the patient and successful in beating the cancer, but they are always searching to improve that standard of care. "We are trying to minimize problems for the patient in the long term, both by reducing recurrences and decreasing complications," said Sippel.


Through clinical trials, Sippel and her team are studying if lymph node removal decreases the chance the tumor will come back or if removing those lymph nodes leads to any negative consequences for the patient, such as a higher incidence of surgical complications.


"A lot of our research is patient-centered," she adds. Therefore, the research she performs is meant to better her patients' well-being and to provide the best care possible. "We want to give our patients the best long term quality of life, with whatever treatment we choose," says Sippel.