Background: Thyroid cancer (TC) incidence is rising in many countries, but the corresponding mortality is constant or declining. Incidence increases appear largely restricted to small papillary TC in young/middle-age individuals. We compared age-specific incidence rates across countries and time periods in order to estimate the fraction of TC possibly attributable to increased surveillance of the thyroid gland (diagnostic changes) following the introduction of neck ultrasonography in the 1980s.
Methods: We focused on high-resource countries, including four Nordic countries, England and Scotland, France, Italy, the United States, Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Before the 1970s, TC incidence in Nordic countries increased proportionally to the second power of age, consistent with the multistage model of carcinogenesis. Using this historical observation for reference, we attributed the progressive departure from linearity of the age curves in each country to an increased detection of asymptomatic disease in young/middle-age individuals. The proportion of cases attributable to diagnostic changes was estimated from the difference between observed rates and those expected using the Nordic countries as reference.
Results: Diagnostic changes may account for ≥60% of TC cases diagnosed in 2003-2007 in women aged under 80 years in France, Italy, the United States, Australia, and the Republic of Korea, and approximately 50% in other assessed countries, except Japan (30%). The proportions attributable to diagnostic changes were higher in countries with largest incidence increases and were consistent across sexes, although increases were smaller and delayed in men.
Conclusions: A large proportion of TC cases diagnosed in high-resource countries in the last two decades are likely to be due to diagnostic changes. This proportion has progressively increased over time, and it is likely to grow further in the future. Since there is evidence of harm but no proof of benefit from the intense scrutiny of the thyroid, the dangers of overdiagnosis and overtreatment of TC should be urgently addressed.