Treated or untreated, common thyroid cancer unlikely to cause death

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Patients with papillary thyroid cancer experience favorable outcomes regardless of receiving treatment or not, according to a study published in the Archives of Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery (2010;136[5]:440-444).

The study, led by Louise Davies, MD, MS, and Gilbert Welch, MD, MPH, focused on 35,663 patients with papillary thyroid cancer that had not spread to the lymph nodes or any other area at diagnosis.

Researchers found that papillary thyroid cancers of any size that are confined to the thyroid gland are unlikely to result in death due to the cancer. Specifically, the 20-year survival rate was estimated to be 97% for those who did not receive treatment and 99% for those who did.  The researchers tracked the patient's cause of death through the National Vital Statistics System and reported that over an average of 6 years of follow-up, six of the patients died of their cancer. However, the researchers noted that the number of patients who died from their cancer was not significantly different from the rate of cancer death among the 35,223 individuals who did undergo treatment.

“Clinicians and patients should feel comfortable considering the option to observe for a year or longer cancers that fall into this category,” the authors concluded. “When treatment is elected, the cancers in this category can be managed with either hemithyroidectomy or total thyroidetomy, and the prognosis will be the same.”

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