Original Research

Population-level Outcomes of Early Thyroid Cancers: A Need to Revisit Current Practice

Pankaj Chaturvedi, Arjun Singh, Atanu Bhattacharjee, Vidisha Tuljapurkar, Deepa Nair, Devendra Chaukar, and Rajesh Dikshit


Background: Early thyroid cancers have excellent long-term outcomes, yet the word “cancer” draws unnecessary apprehension. This study aimed to define when the recommendations for observation and surveillance may be extended to early thyroid cancers at the population level.

Methods: Non-metastasized thyroid cancers ≤40 mm diameter were identified from the 1975–2016 Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) database. Causes of death were compared across demographic data. Disease-specific outcomes were compared to the age-adjusted healthy United States (US) population. Survival estimates were computed using Kaplan–Meier and compared using the Cox proportional hazard model. Dynamic benchmarks impacting disease-specific overall survival were determined by decision tree modeling and tested by the Cox model.

Results: Of the 28,728 thyroid cancers included in this study, 98.4% underwent some form of thyroid-specific treatment and were followed for a maximum of 10.9 years. This group had a 4.3% mortality rate at the end of follow-up (10.9 years maximum), with 13 times more deaths attributed to competing risks rather than thyroid cancer (stage T1a versus stage T1b, P=1.000; T1 versus T2, P<0.001). Among the untreated T1a or T1b tumors, the risk of disease-specific death was 21 times lower than death due to other causes. There was no significant difference between T1a and T1b tumors nor across sex. The age-adjusted risk of death for the healthy US population was higher than the population with thyroid cancer. Dynamic categorization demonstrated worsening outcomes up to 73 years, uninfluenced by sex or tumor size. For patients over 73 years of age, only tumors >26 mm impacted outcomes.

Conclusion: Based on the current data, T1a and T1b nodules have similar survival outcomes and are not significantly impacted even when left untreated. Multi-institutional prospective studies are needed to confirm these findings so that current observation and surveillance recommendations can be extended to certain T1 thyroid nodules.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2022;13(2):e0008