National Cancer Institute

Posted Date: Jul 21, 2005



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What is parathyroid cancer?

Parathyroid cancer, a very rare cancer, is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the tissues of the parathyroid gland. The parathyroid gland is at the base of the neck, near the thyroid gland. The parathyroid gland makes a hormone called parathyroid hormone (PTH), or parathormone, which helps the body store and use calcium.

Problems with the parathyroid gland are common and are usually not caused by cancer. The parathyroid gland may become overactive and make too much PTH, a condition called hyperparathyroidism. This causes too much calcium to be found in the blood. The extra PTH also takes calcium from the bones, which causes pain in the bones, kidney problems, and other types of problems. There are other conditions that can cause the parathyroid gland to make too much PTH. It is important for a doctor to determine what is causing the extra PTH. Very rarely, hyperparathyroidism is caused by cancer of the parathyroid gland, and too much PTH will be produced by the tumor. A rare inherited disorder of the parathyroid called familial isolated hyperparathyroidism may increase the risk of developing parathyroid cancer. A rare inherited disorder of the endocrine glands called multiple endocrine neoplasia 1 has also been linked with an increased risk of developing parathyroid cancer.

A doctor should be seen if there are the following symptoms: bone pain, a lump in the neck, pain in the upper part of the back, weak muscles, difficulty speaking, or vomiting.

If there are symptoms, the doctor will conduct a physical examination and feel for lumps in the throat. The doctor may also order blood tests and other tests to check for cancer or other types of tumors that may not be cancer (benign tumors).

The chance of recovery (prognosis) depends on whether the cancer is just in the parathyroid gland or has spread to other parts of the body (stage) and the patient's general health.

Stage Explanation

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Stages of parathyroid cancer

Once parathyroid cancer is found, more tests will be done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This is called staging. A doctor needs to know the stage of the disease to plan treatment. The following stages are used for parathyroid cancer.


The cancer is in the parathyroid gland and may or may not have spread into nearby tissues.


The cancer has spread beyond nearby tissues to lymph nodes in the area or to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver, bone, membrane around the heart, and pancreas.


Recurrent disease means that the cancer has come back (recurred) after it has been treated. It may come back in the original place or in another part of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

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How parathyroid cancer is treated

There are treatments for all patients with parathyroid cancer. Medical treatment to lower high blood levels of calcium caused by the disease is very important for all patients. In addition, three kinds of treatment are used:

  1. Surgery (taking out the cancer).
  2. Radiation therapy (using high-dose x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells).
  3. Chemotherapy (using anticancer drugs).

Surgery is the most effective treatment for parathyroid cancer. A doctor may remove the parathyroid gland (parathyroidectomy) and the half of the thyroid on the same side as the cancer (ipsilateral thyroidectomy). Nearby muscles, tissues and nerves may also be removed to prevent the cancer from spreading.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy) or from putting materials that produce radiation (radioisotopes) through thin plastic tubes in the area where the cancer cells are found (internal radiation therapy).

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be taken by pill, or it may be put into the body by a needle in the vein or muscle. Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the drug enters the bloodstream, travels through the body, and can kill cancer cells outside the parathyroid gland.

Treatment by stage

Treatment for parathyroid cancer depends on the type and stage of the disease and the patient's age and overall health.

Localized Parathyroid Cancer

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Treatment may be one of the following:

  1. Surgery to remove the parathyroid gland (parathyroidectomy), the half of the thyroid on the same side as the cancer (ipsilateral thyroidectomy), and possibly other tissues around the thyroid. Medical treatment before surgery for high blood calcium levels and other complications of hyperparathyroidism is very important.
  2. Surgery followed by radiation therapy.
  3. Radiation therapy.

Metastatic Parathyroid Cancer

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Parathyroid cancer which has spread beyond nearby tissues to areas such as the lungs may appear soon after surgery, or as much as 20 years later. Because parathyroid cancer tends to be slow-growing, some patients live for many years even after the cancer has spread.

Treatment may be one of the following:

  1. Surgery to remove the cancer from the places where it has spread.
  2. Medicine to reduce the amount of calcium in the blood.
  3. Surgery followed by radiation therapy.
  4. Radiation therapy.
  5. Chemotherapy.

Recurrent Parathyroid Cancer

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In about half of patients who have surgery for parathyroid cancer, the disease recurs (comes back), usually within 2 to 5 years. Because parathyroid cancer tends to be slow-growing, repeated surgeries to remove cancer which has come back can lower the level of parathyroid hormone and extend survival.

Treatment may be one of the following:

  1. Surgery to remove the cancer which has come back in the area of the thyroid or in other parts of the body.
  2. Medicine to reduce the amount of calcium in the blood.
  3. Surgery followed by radiation therapy.
  4. Radiation therapy.
  5. Chemotherapy.

Changes to This Summary (07/21/2005)

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The PDQ® cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Links to the NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms were added to this summary.

To Learn More

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For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

Web sites and Organizations

The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. There are also many other places where people can get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Local hospitals may have information on local and regional agencies that offer information about finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems associated with cancer treatment.


The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


The NCI's LiveHelp service, a program available on several of the Institute's Web sites, provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.


For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:

  • NCI Public Inquiries Office
  • Suite 3036A
  • 6116 Executive Boulevard, MSC8322
  • Bethesda, MD 20892-8322

About PDQ®

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PDQ® is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ® is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ® is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ® is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ® contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ® database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

The PDQ® cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ® also contains information on clinical trials.

Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about new treatments, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard."

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ® and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ®. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


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