Thyroid cancer: A lethal endocrine neoplasm

Jacob Robbins, Maria J. Merino, John D. Boice, Elaine Ron, Kenneth B. Ain, H. Richard Alexander, Jeffrey A. Norton, James Reynolds

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

212 Scopus citations


This conference focuses on the controversies about managing thyroid cancer, emphasizing the possibility that the treatment of patients with potentially fatal thyroid cancer may be improved. Although the mortality rate from thyroid cancer is low, it is the highest among cancers affecting the endocrine glands (excluding the ovary). Exposure to radiation during childhood in the 1930s and 1940s increased the incidence of but not the mortality from thyroid cancer, because these tumors are mainly papillary cancers developing in young adults. These rates may change as the exposed cohort ages. Risk factors that increase mortality include older patient age and the growth characteristics of the tumor at diagnosis, the presence of distant metastases, and cell type (for example, the tall-cell variants of papillary cancer, follicular cancer [to be distinguished from the more benign follicular variant of papillary cancer], medullary cancer, and anaplastic cancer). Local metastases in lymph nodes do not seem to increase the risk for death from papillary cancer, but they do increase the risk for death from follicular and medullary cancer. In the latter, mortality is decreased by the early detection and treatment of patients with the familial multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome 2a. There are excellent tumor markers for differentiated cancer of the parafollicular and of the follicular cells (serum calcitonin and serum thyroglobulin levels, respectively). Measuring the calcitonin level allows early diagnosis of familial medullary cancer, whereas measuring the thyroglobulin level, although useful only after total thyroidectomy, allows early recognition of recurrence or metastases of papillary or follicular cancer. Initial surgery, protocols for follow-up, and the use of radioiodine for the ablation of any residual thyroid and the treatment of metastatic cancer are discussed. Because these tumors resist currently available chemotherapy regimens, possible ways to increase the effectiveness of radioiodine therapy are considered as are new approaches to treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)133-147
Number of pages15
JournalAnnals of Internal Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 15 1991

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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