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Childhood Radiation Ups Thyroid Cancer Risk

December 20, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Chest Radiology, Pediatric Radiology
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Children exposed to head and neck radiation, whether for treatment of cancer or diagnostic CT scans, face an elevated risk of thyroid cancer for more than five decades after the initial radiation exposure, according to research at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York.

The findings appear in the current issue of Radiation Research. Lead author M. Jacob Adams, MD, said the study may also shed some light on why rates of thyroid cancer continue to rise. Coinciding with that rise has been a rapid increase among the general public in the use of CT and other imaging that involves ionizing radiation.

Dr. Adams, an associate professor in the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, was quoted in a medical center news release as saying:

Our findings strongly suggest that those individuals exposed to irradiation from multiple CT scans to the head, neck, and chest during early childhood and individuals treated with radiotherapy to the upper body as children have a lifelong increased risk of thyroid cancer.

Dr Adams and his colleagues assessed the rates of thyroid cancer among people who had been treated during infancy with radiation for an enlarged thymus, which was once thought to be a health problem, from 1926 to 1957. The researchers resurveyed those individuals from 2004 to 2008 and compared them with their siblings who had not received radiation.

Thyroid cancer occurred in 50 of the 1,303 patients who had received radiation compared to 13 of the 1,768 nonirradiated siblings. The risk of cancer continued for a median of 57.5 years. The higher the doses of radiation, the greater the risk. The association remained strong even after the researchers adjusted for other thyroid cancer risk factors.

“Ionizing radiation is a known carcinogen, and, in fact, about 1 million CT scans are performed every year on children 5 years or younger,” Dr. Adams said. “Although CTs and other imaging tests are an important diagnostic tool and radiotherapy is an important treatment modality for cancer, with everything comes a risk.”

Related seminar: Pediatric Radiology—Clinical and Radiology Perspectives

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