Thyroid cancer: Growing incidence, but highly treatable

September 12, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So

Thanks to highly effective treatments, thyroid cancer is among the most treatable of cancers. But Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month — which is this month — brings attention to its challenges, including its growing occurrence and lack of routine screening.

Thyroid Screening Better screening tools have led to improved detection of thyroid cancer, particularly smaller nodules that may have been missed by older tests.

Although thyroid cancers are relatively rare — with approximately 60,000 new cases expected this year — incidence rates have doubled since 1990, in a time when many other cancers' incidences have stayed stable or dropped.

However, Robert S. Kang, M.D., assistant clinical professor in City of Hope's Division of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, said the trend isn't particularly worrisome.

"The [growth] statistics may be somewhat misleading ... due to increased utilization of and access to imaging and health care," Kang said. The American Cancer Society concurred, noting that better screening tools have led to improved detection of thyroid cancer, particularly smaller nodules that may have been missed by older tests.

Further, Kang said,  "five-year survival rates generally remain high for the most common types of thyroid cancer, and over 97 percent for cancer confined to the thyroid and regional lymph nodes."

However, thyroid cancers are rarely screened for, and if caught in a late stage, the five-year survival rate can drop as low as 28 percent. Currently, the routine thyroid cancer screenings are administered only to those with a strong family history, Kang said.

But there is hope on both detection and treatment fronts for thyroid cancer.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is currently updating its thyroid cancer screening recommendations, and new data and technologies since its last recommendation in 1996 could lead to even better detection of this cancer, especially in its early stages when it is the most treatable.

New drugs hold promise as well. A class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors acts as targeted therapy against thyroid cancer, Kang said, attacking the tumor cells while sparing normal tissue. This could prove particularly useful against advanced-stage disease.

In the meantime, Kang encourages people to take measures to reduce their thyroid cancer risk. This includes minimizing exposure to unnecessary radiation, getting enough dietary iodine and consulting a physician when experiencing any associated symptoms, such as nodules or enlarged lymph nodes in front of the neck.

"As in all cancers, early detection also directly impacts survival rates and any lumps [in the neck region] should be brought to the attention of a health care provider," Kang said.

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