Papillary Thyroid Cancer: Controversies in the Management of Neck Metastasis

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To describe our institution’s experience with the management of cervical metastasis in papillary thyroid carcinoma (PTC) and suggest a treatment strategy based on the incidence of pathologic nodes and cervical recurrence in patients undergoing varied surgical approaches to address lymphadenopathy over the study dates.

Materials and Methods:

Between December 1, 1972 and September 1, 2007, 183 total patients diagnosed with PTC at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center were treated with lymphadenectomy. Pathologic parameters, including number of pathologic nodes and extent of lymphadenectomy were correlated to disease recurrence.

Study Design:

Retrospective chart review.


The incidence of pathologic nodes in lymphadenectomy specimens (57.9%) and the recurrence rate (33.7%) were high, in our study population. In comparing techniques with address lymphadenopathy, the highest recurrence rate was observed in patients with pathologic nodes treated with “lymph node plucking” procedures at the time of thyroidectomy and those patients with multiple nodes involved. Few patients with no pathologic nodes, regardless of lymphadenectomy extent recurred.


Our data show that limited neck dissection and disease burden are associated with the highest rates of cervical recurrence in regional metastatic PTC. Comprehensive functional neck dissection would seem to offer the patient the best opportunity for control of cervical metastasis. The American Thyroid Association recommends thyroglobulin monitoring and ultrasound evaluation of the neck in all postoperative patients. Therefore patients with the diagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer need preoperative ultrasound of the lateral neck and fine needle aspiration of suspicious nodes to avoid undertreating patients scheduled for total thyroidectomy. Neck dissection of the compartments in which pathologic nodes were detected (central, lateral, or both) should then be undertaken at the time of initial thyroidectomy. Eliminating all disease remains elusive and the prognosticsignificance of cervical disease persistence and recurrence is still unknown. Patients with cervical metastasis are at substantial risk of regional recurrence, necessitating repeat surgery. Parathyroid implantation should be considered at the time of the initial surgery to reduce the risk of hypoparathyroidism should subsequent procedures be required. More information will be necessary to better understand the prognostic significance of these regional metastases. In the interim, many patients may be overtreated, whereas some remain at risk of death because of disease.

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