Thyroid cancer overdiagnosis on the rise, study finds

In the next year, more than 60,000 American adults will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer, but as the number of cases increases, so do the number of overdiagnoses and unnecessary interventions, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has found.

Researchers analyzed data from 12 countries and estimated that more than 470,000 women and 90,000 men may have been overdiagnosed with thyroid cancer from 1987 to 2007, Medscape reported.

They attributed the overdiagnoses to increasing medical surveillance and emerging diagnostic techniques. Those methods include CT scanning and MRI, which allow detection of nonlethal disease that are plentiful in the thyroid gland of healthy people, and are unlikely to cause symptoms or death, Medscape reported. In the United States, Western Europe and Australia, 70 to 90 percent of thyroid cancers were incidentally identified.

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Researchers said most of the thyroid cancers were small, low-risk papillary carcinomas, and the “vast majority” of patients underwent total thyroidectomy. A “high proportion” also received lymph-node dissection and radiotherapy. However, these interventions weren’t necessarily linked with benefit survival.

Thyroid cancer-related deaths have not changed substantially, even with the increased number of diagnoses, which emphasizes the fact that a higher number of cases isn’t a good thing, said Dr. Mario Skugor, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

"We’re also finding the very, very small cancers and sometimes that creates anxiety in patients; although this is really not the disease, it’s just a kind of condition that the patient has and it will probably never be clinically significant,” Skugor, who was not involved with the research, said in a news release.

The 12 countries that were part of the study were Australia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, Republic of Korea, Scotland, Sweden and the U.S.

Skugor recommended individuals who are concerned about their thyroid to consult with their primary care physician for a neck examination.

“If there’s any abnormality, they will suggest you do an entire ultrasound and that’s OK, but without any papillary abnormality, I don’t think you should have it,” Skugor said.

Skuger added there has been an increase of larger, more dangerous thyroid cancers, but more research is needed to understand the cause.

According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2013 an estimated 637,115 people were living with thyroid cancer in the U.S.