What is the role of lab testing in the diagnosis of thyroid cancer?

Updated: May 14, 2020
  • Author: Pramod K Sharma, MD; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
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The serum thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) concentration is a highly sensitive measure for hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. A sensitive TSH assay is useful in the evaluation of solitary thyroid nodules. A low serum TSH value suggests an autonomously functioning nodule, which typically is benign. However, malignant disease cannot be ruled out on the basis of low or high TSH levels.

Other thyroid function tests are usually not necessary in the initial workup. Serum thyroglobulin measurements are not helpful diagnostically because they are elevated in most benign thyroid conditions.

Elevated serum calcitonin levels are highly suggestive of MTC. Serum calcitonin measurement, which was once the mainstay in the diagnosis of FMTC, has been replaced by sensitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays for germline mutations in the RET proto-oncogene. These mutations are present in patients with MEN 2A, MEN 2B, and FMTC (see Genetic testing for MEN and FMTC in the Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma section). However, calcitonin and the more sensitive pentagastrin-stimulated calcitonin are used as tumor markers to monitor patients who have been treated for MTC. Because of the low incidence of MTC overall, testing of serum calcitonin is not a cost-effective screening tool in the primary workup of thyroid nodules.

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