The ideal therapy for differentiated thyroid cancer is uncertain. Although thyroid hormone treatment is pivotal, the degree of thyrotropin (TSH) suppression that is required to prevent recurrences has not been studied in detail. We have examined the relation of TSH suppression to baseline disease characteristics and to the likelihood of disease progression in a cohort of thyroid cancer patients who have been followed in a multicenter thyroid cancer registry that was established in 1986. The present study describes 617 patients with papillary and 66 patients with follicular thyroid cancer followed annually for a median of 4.5 years (range 1-8.6 years). Cancer staging was assessed using a staging scheme developed and validated by the registry. Cancer status was defined as no residual disease; progressive disease at any follow-up time; or death from thyroid cancer. A mean TSH score was calculated for each patient by averaging all available TSH determinations, where 1 = undetectable TSH; 2 = subnormal TSH; 3 = normal TSH; and 4 = elevated TSH. Patients were also grouped by their TSH scores: group 1: mean TSH score 1.0-1.99; group 2: mean TSH score 2.0-2.99; group 3: mean TSH score 3.0-4.0. The degree of TSH suppression did not differ between papillary and follicular thyroid cancer patients. However, TSH suppression was greater in papillary cancer patients who were initially classified as being at higher risk for recurrence. This was not the case for follicular cancer patients, where TSH suppression was similar for all patients. For all stages of papillary cancer, a Cox proportional hazards model showed that disease stage, patient age, and radioiodine therapy all predicted disease progression, but TSH score category did not. However, TSH score category was an independent predictor of disease progression in high risk patients (p = 0.03), but was no longer significant when radioiodine therapy was included in the model (p = 0.09). There were too few patients with follicular cancer for multivariate analysis. These data suggest that physicians use greater degrees of TSH suppression in higher risk papillary cancer patients. Our data do not support the concept that greater degrees of TSH suppression are required to prevent disease progression in low-risk patients, but this possibility remains in high-risk patients. Additional studies with more patients and longer follow-up may provide the answer to this important question.