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Differentiated thyroid cancers, including papillary and follicular variants, are a useful model with which to examine interactions between cancer and the immune system. Differentiated thyroid cancers are detected in only 20,000 individuals annually in the USA, but thyroid microcarcinomas (< 1 cm in diameter) are far more common. This suggests that the immune system might restrain the growth of these microcarcinomas. On the clinical level, patients with lymphocytes that infiltrate into papillary thyroid cancer have improved survival, supporting the notion that immune system activation might improve this. Together, these observations suggest that the growth and distant spread of thyroid carcinoma are suppressed by mechanisms of immune surveillance, possibly involving lymphocytes, macrophages and their secreted products. In this review, we examine the general hypothesis of immune surveillance and the data pertaining to the roles of lymphocytes, dendritic cells and cytokines in the immune response against thyroid cancers.