Background: Initial operations for medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) frequently do not eradicate all disease, as evidenced by persistently elevated levels of stimulated plasma calcitonin.
Methods: Thirty-two patients with MTC and elevated stimulated plasma calcitonin levels after thyroidectomy were studied between 1990 and 1993. Thirty-five repeat neck explorations and microdissections were performed. Four patients also underwent a median sternotomy and mediastinal dissection.
Results: In nine patients (group 1), stimulated plasma calcitonin levels were undetectable after reoperation, whereas in 13 cases (group 2) the calcitonin levels decreased by 40% or more. In 10 cases (group 3) the CT levels did not decrease. Primary tumors that exhibited invasive features (invasion of adjacent structures or extranodal or extracapsular spread) were found more often in patients from group 3 than in patients from groups 1 or 2 (p < 0.05, Fisher's exact test).
Conclusions: Reoperation resulted in normalization of calcitonin levels in 28% of patients and a decrease in calcitonin levels by 40% or more in another 42% of patients. The data also suggest that patients whose primary MTC has invaded tissues beyond the thyroid gland or a lymph node capsule are less likely to benefit from repeat operation.