Increased Incidence of Thyroid Cancer Associated With Increased Diagnosis


Media Advisory: To contact author H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., M.P.H., call Annmarie Christensen at 603-653-0897 or email


JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery Study Highlights


The increased incidence of thyroid cancer appears to be associated with an “epidemic of diagnosis” and not disease, according to a study by Louise Davies, M.D., M.S., of the VA Medical Center, White River Junction, Vt., and H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., M.P.H., of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice, Hanover, N.H.


An increase in thyroid cancer previously has been reported, largely due to the detection of small papillary cancers, a common and less aggressive form of the disease, according to the study background.


The authors analyzed data for patients diagnosed with thyroid cancer from 1975 to 2009 in nine areas of the country using the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program: Atlanta, Connecticut, Detroit, Hawaii, Iowa, New Mexico, Utah, the San Francisco-Oakland area in California, and the Seattle-Puget Sound area of Washington.


Since 1975, the incidence of thyroid cancer has nearly tripled from 4.9 to 14.3 per 100,000 people, with virtually the entire increase due to papillary thyroid cancer (from 3.4 to 12.5 per 100,000 people). The absolute increase in thyroid cancer among women (from 6.5 to 21.4 = 14.9 per 100,000 women) was almost four times greater than for men (from 3.1 to 6.9 = 3.8 per 100,000 men). The mortality rate has remained stable since 1975 at about 0.5 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the results.


The authors suggest the jump in incidence is due to an increase in diagnosis and possibly overdiagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer, which can be present in patients without symptoms. Overdiagnosis occurs when a person is diagnosed with a condition that causes no symptoms and may cause them no eventual harm. Responses to the overdiagnosis could ultimately include active surveillance without treatment of the asymptomatic cancers, relabeling some of them as other than cancer, and more closely investigating risk factors for cancer, the authors write in the study. They also suggest that physicians explain to patients that many of these small cancers will never grow and cause harm to the patient, although it is not possible to know which diagnosed cancers will fall into that category.


“We found that there is an ongoing epidemic of thyroid cancer in the United States. It does not seem to be an epidemic of disease, however. Instead, it seems to be substantially an epidemic of diagnosis: thyroid cancer incidence has nearly tripled since 1975, while its mortality has remained stable,” the authors conclude.

(JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. Published online February 20, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2014.1.  Available pre-embargo to the media at


Editor’s Note:  This study was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice. Please see article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

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