Objective: To determine the temporal sequence for developing benign and malignant thyroid neoplasms after radiation.
Summary background data: Therapeutic radiation is associated with thyroid neoplasms in humans and animals. Some question whether thyroid cancers develop de novo or from benign thyroid neoplasms. Little information, however, is available concerning the time to development of benign and malignant thyroid neoplasms after radiation exposure.
Methods: We retrospectively analyzed the records of 171 consecutive patients who had a history of exposure to radiation and were treated surgically at University of California, San Francisco-affiliated hospitals for thyroid neoplasms between 1960 and 1999.
Results: There were 66 men and 105 women aged 9 to 80 years (mean, 47.0 years). One hundred patients had benign and 71 had malignant tumors (58 papillary cancers, 10 follicular cancers, 1 Hurthle cell cancer, 1 medullary cancer, and 1 carcinosarcoma). The mean latency period for benign tumors was longer than that for malignant lesions (mean, 34.1 and 28.4 years, P = 0.018; median, 38.0 years and 30.0 years, P = 0.001). Follicular carcinomas developed sooner (mean, 20.5 years; median, 20 years) than did follicular adenomas (mean, 35.3 years; median, 36.5 years; P = 0.003, P = 0.0009). Patients with papillary thyroid cancers presenting as occult papillary cancers (<1 cm) and as a dominant nodule had similar latency periods (mean, 34.0 and 28.0 years P = 0.29; median, 37.5 and 30.5 years, P = 0.09), respectively.
Conclusion: Although there could be selection bias regarding referral of patients, our data document that malignant thyroid tumors after radiation exposure, including follicular carcinomas, present earlier than do benign thyroid tumors. Occult and manifest papillary thyroid cancers present at about the same time interval after radiation exposure. Our findings question whether benign thyroid neoplasms progress to malignant thyroid neoplasms and that most occult thyroid cancers do not progress to malignant thyroid cancers in radiation-exposed patients.