A Snapshot of Thyroid Cancer
Incidence and Mortality
Thyroid cancer is the ninth most common cancer in the United States. In 2014, it is estimated that nearly 63,000 Americans will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and nearly 1,900 will die of the disease. The overall incidence of thyroid cancer in the United States has increased in people of all racial/ethnic groups and in both males and females over the past several decades.
The incidence of thyroid cancer is increasing more rapidly than that of any other cancer in the United States. Some, although not all, of this increase can be explained by improved detection methods. Thyroid cancer incidence rates vary by both sex and race, with incidence being nearly three times higher in women than in men and nearly twice as high in whites as in African Americans. After whites, Asians/Pacific islanders have the second highest incidence. Overall mortality rates remain low despite rising an average of 0.8% annually from 2002-2011.
Most people who develop thyroid cancer are between age 25 and 65 years. Risk factors for thyroid cancer include being female, exposure to radiation to the head and neck as a child, exposure to radioactive fallout, a personal history of goiter, a family history of thyroid disease or thyroid cancer, certain genetic conditions, and Asian ancestry. There are no routine screening tests for thyroid cancer. Standard treatments for thyroid cancer include surgery, radiation therapy (including radioactive iodine therapy), chemotherapy, thyroid hormone therapy and targeted therapy.
NCI’s Investment in Thyroid Cancer Research
To learn more about the research NCI conducts and supports in thyroid cancer, visit the NCI Funded Research Portfolio (NFRP). The NFRP includes information about research grants, contract awards, and intramural research projects funded by NCI. When exploring this information, it should be noted that approximately half of the NCI budget supports basic research that may not be specific to one type of cancer. By its nature, basic research cuts across many disease areas, contributing to our knowledge of the underlying biology of cancer and enabling the research community to make advances against many cancer types. For these reasons, the funding levels reported in NFRP may not definitively report all research relevant to a given category.
Other NCI programs and activities relevant to thyroid cancer include:
- The Radiation Epidemiology Branch of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics conducts radiation epidemiology and dosimetry studies of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident.
- The Phase II Trial of Valproic Acid in Patients with Advanced Thyroid Cancers of Follicular Cell Origin is studying whether valproic acid, a drug used to treat mood and seizure disorders, kills thyroid tumor cells, slows their growth, or increases their uptake of radioactive iodine.
- Researchers with The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) program are systematically identifying the major genomic changes involved in more than 20 cancers, including thyroid cancer, using state-of-the-art genomic technologies.
- The NCI-supported Childhood Cancer Survivor Study is following more than 14,000 childhood cancer survivors and approximately 4,000 of their siblings to assess long-term outcomes and to better understand the long-term effects of childhood cancer treatments on risks of developing subsequent cancer, including thyroid cancer.
- NCI’s Molecular Profiling-Based Assignment of Cancer Therapy for Patients with Advanced Solid Tumors (M-PACT) trial is assessing whether choosing specific treatment options based on tumor gene variations is more effective than standard cancer treatments. M-PACT could identify patient subgroups that are likely to benefit from certain treatments and result in new treatments being developed quickly for some cancers.
- One thyroid cancer-specific Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) is working to identify genetic risk factors, develop new approaches to minimize treatment side effects, and develop new biomarkers and better treatments for thyroid cancer.
Selected Advances in Thyroid Cancer Research
- The histone deacetylase inhibitors belinostat and panobinostat, either alone or in combination with several tyrosine kinase inhibitors, inhibited growth of and induced apoptosis in a panel of thyroid cancer cell lines; moreover, belinostat inhibited tumor growth in mice bearing thyroid cancer xenografts. These findings suggest that histone deacetylase inhibitors may have a role in the treatment of aggressive thyroid cancers. Published July 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
- Mutations in the region of the telomerase gene that controls its expression were found in various types of thyroid cancers and were most prevalent in aggressive thyroid cancers, suggesting that these mutations may be involved in thyroid tumorigenesis, thyroid cancer progression, and thyroid cancer aggressiveness. Published August 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
- Fusion oncogenes were identified in most of the 26 thyroid cancer samples obtained from patients exposed to ionizing radiation during childhood due to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Published October 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
- A retrospective case-control study of patients who underwent thyroid ultrasound imaging found that three ultrasound imaging characteristics of asymptomatic thyroid nodules were associated with the risk of thyroid cancer: microcalcifications, size greater than 2 cm, and solid composition. Validation of these findings in a prospective study may allow thyroid ultrasound imaging to be used to identify patients who have a low risk of cancer for whom biopsy could be deferred. Published October 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
Additional Resources for Thyroid Cancer
- What You Need To Know About™ Thyroid Cancer
Describes thyroid cancer types, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care for someone recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
- NCI Thyroid Cancer Home Page
Information about thyroid cancer treatment, clinical trials, research, and other topics from the National Cancer Institute.
- Accidents at Nuclear Power Plants and Cancer Risk
A fact sheet about cancer risks associated with accidents at nuclear power plants. Includes information for cancer patients who live in an area that may be affected by a nuclear power plant accident. Also contains links to information about NCI-supported research on ionizing radiation and cancer risk.
- Thyroid Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)
Expert-reviewed information summary about the treatment of thyroid cancer.
- Clinical Trials for Thyroid Cancer