Background: Patients operated on for medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) frequently have persistent elevated plasma calcitonin concentrations after operation, indicating remaining tumor. The plasma calcitonin concentration in a patient with MTC roughly reflects the endogenous tumor burden. The only effective treatment for MTC is surgical. The decision about whether a patient with persistent MTC should have a repeat operation would be influenced by knowledge of the natural course of the disease.
Methods: Forty patients with persistently elevated peak plasma calcitonin concentrations after thyroidectomy for MTC were monitored for a mean of 6 years. Serial determinations of plasma calcitonin levels were obtained before and after intravenous injection of calcium and pentagastrin.
Results: At the first postoperative test 63% of the patients had undetectable basal calcitonin values, although their stimulated plasma calcitonin concentrations were elevated. The mean annual increase in stimulated plasma calcitonin concentrations was 117%, but plasma calcitonin concentrations were stable in three patients and decreased in one patient. Five patients are known to have experienced distant metastases.
Conclusions: MTC is a progressive disease in most patients with persistent hypercalcitoninemia after thyroidectomy. Stimulated peak plasma calcitonin levels are more meaningful than basal levels in the serial postoperative evaluation of patients with persistent hypercalcitoninemia after thyroidectomy for MTC.