Background: Intense postoperative monitoring has resulted in increasing detection of patients with recurrent papillary thyroid cancer (PTC). Our goals included quantifying successful reoperation, and analyzing surgical complications and reasons for relapse. Methods: From 1999 to 2008, a total of 410 patients underwent reoperation for PTC relapse. We analyzed post-reoperative disease outcomes, reasons for relapse, and complications. Results: Bilateral reoperative thyroidectomy was performed in 13 (3 %) patients; lobectomy, 34 (8 %); central neck (VI) soft tissue local recurrence excision, 47 (11.5 %); bilateral VI node dissection, 107 (26 %); unilateral VI dissection, 112 (27 %); levels II-V dissection, 93 (23 %); levels III-V, 86 (21 %); lateral single- or two-compartment dissection, 51 (12 %); and node picking, 20 (5 %) of level VI and 53 (13 %) lateral neck. Complications occurred in 6 %; including hypoparathyroidism, 3 %; unintentional recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) paralysis, 3 %; phrenic nerve injury, 0.5 %; spinal accessory nerve injury, 0.5 %; and chyle leak in 1.6 %. Of 380 (93 %) patients with follow-up (mean 5.2 years); 274 (72 %) patients are alive with no structural evidence of disease, 38 % developed disease relapse (mean 2.1 years), 42 (11 %) died from PTC, and 55 (14 %) are alive with disease. The reason for relapse was a false negative pre-reoperative ultrasound (US) in 18 (5 %), nodal recurrence in the operative field in 37 (10 %), a combination of these two reasons in 10 (3 %), and disease virulence (local or systemic recurrence) in 81 (21 %). Conclusions: Although 72 % of patients were rendered structurally disease free after reoperation, nearly 40 % suffered additional relapse. Improved surgical technique or preoperative localization might positively affect 15-20 %; at least 20 % reflect the biologic aggressiveness of the disease.
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