Objective: To determine the incidence of clinically positive lateral cervical nodes at presentation and after initial treatment in patients with well-differentiated thyroid cancer.
Design: Retrospective chart review.
Setting: University-affiliated teaching hospitals.
Patients: A total of 508 patients who underwent a thyroidectomy as part of their initial treatment for well-differentiated thyroid carcinoma between January 1978 and December 1999. Neck dissections were performed only for clinically palpable cervical nodes.
Main outcome measures: Recurrence in the neck and survival.
Results: Forty-four patients (9%) had palpable lateral cervical lymph nodes at the time of surgery. All 31 patients younger than 45 years presenting with palpable positive nodes are alive and free of disease; 4 of 13 patients 45 years or older have died of thyroid cancer. Only 16 (3%) of 464 patients who did not undergo initial neck dissection had recurrence in lateral cervical nodes. Recurrence is more likely when the initial tumor is larger than 4 cm. In 216 patients younger than 45 years, there were 5 (2%) recurrences in lateral cervical nodes; these patients remain alive and free of disease. In 248 patients 45 years or older, there were 11 (4%) with recurrent disease in the lateral neck; 4 of these patients have died of thyroid cancer.
Conclusions: An aggressive approach to detecting and treating occult lateral cervical nodes by techniques such as jugular node sampling, sentinel node biopsy, or image-guided needle biopsy is not necessary in most patients. Attempts to detect and remove occult lateral cervical lymph node metastases might be considered in older patients with large primary tumors.