For Some Cancers, Experts Increasingly Favor A ‘Wait And See’ Approach To Treatment

Thyroid cancer rates are skyrocketing. In 1992, 5.9 in 100,000 Americans were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and in 2002, 9.2 in 100,000 got the diagnosis. By 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, the rate has risen to a whopping 14.9 — two and a half times as high as it was just two decades before.

But the percentage of Americans who die of cancer in the thyroid — a butterfly-shaped hormone gland in the neck — hasn’t budged a bit since 1992. Indeed, it’s virtually the same as it was as far back as 1935.

According to a study published this week in journal Thyroid, that’s because the entire increase in thyroid cancer diagnoses is the result of more effective screening methods, not more cancer. Modern diagnostic methods, such as MRIs, CT scans and ultrasound-guided biopsies, allow doctors to detect thyroid tumors — especially small ones — far more easily than they could before.

Yet the study noted that the small, slow-growing tumors that doctors are now able to catch aren’t actually life-threatening. Indeed, they often don’t cause any symptoms at all.

But isn’t knowing about them better than staying in the dark?

Not necessarily. Because when screening picks up a growth, patients and doctors often move to treat it with surgery — even if doing so wouldn’t help the patient’s health, and can actually hurt it.

For that reason, Mayo Clinic endocrinologist Dr. Juan Brito Campana, the lead author on the Thryoid study, said in an email, “There is absolutely no evidence that screening for thyroid cancer provides any benefit to the patients.”

Unnecessary thyroidectomies always cost money — money that could be better spent elsewhere. The researchers noted that Americans spend a total of $1.6 billion a year on —> Read More