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Pennsylvania’s thyroid cancer rate is still rising

Pennsylvania has the highest rate of thyroid cancer in the nation, and its growth is outpacing the rest of the nation, according to researchers at Penn State College of Medicine.

While the rate of thyroid cancer is increasing nationwide, it is mostly a treatable illness that people can survive, said Dr. David Goldenberg, a head and neck surgeon and author of the study, published in August in the Journal of the American Medical Association Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

He said the question is why the uptick all over the nation, and why Pennsylvania is getting hit harder than the rest of the country. He said there are some pockets in the Pittsburgh area that have very high rates of the disease.

“We don’t know the reason why,” Goldenberg said. “We’re pretty sure it’s not Three Mile Island.”

When a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg failed in 1979, people in the surrounding area were subject to radioactive iodine, which in large doses, can destroy the thyroid. The effects can take more than a decade to develop. Goldenberg said previous research showed some increase in thyroid cancer, but it wasn’t consistent, and it wasn’t causal.

The thyroid is a small, two-section organ found in the neck. It produces several hormones that help regulate metabolism and other hormones.

After surveying data from the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results registry and the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry, Goldenberg found that thyroid cancer was growing at a rate of about 4 percent nationwide, but at 7 percent in Pennsylvania. He found that women had a higher rate of thyroid cancer than men, and that white women have the highest rate. But, the rate of thyroid cancer is growing very quickly in black women.

He also found that among the different types of thyroid cancer, the growth seemed to be in the incidence of a specific type — papillary thyroid cancer.

This is the type that Chris Sypien, 58, of Scott Township had. It was difficult to diagnose, she said, and she underwent several biopsies before she learned what she had.

“The symptoms were so bad, I couldn’t swallow,” she said. “If I turned sideways, it looked like I had a golf ball, no, a tennis ball, in my neck.”

Dr. Linwah Yip, an endocrine surgeon and thyroid specialist at UPMC, agreed that thyroid cancer is hard to diagnose.

“From our own work, we know that only 50 percent of thyroid cancers are discovered through biopsy,” she said. “It’s a hard cancer to diagnose because the thyroid is difficult to feel. Just because it feels OK, it doesn’t mean that it is.”

Goldenberg said he is looking at how obesity may play a role in the uptick. Yip said that obesity could be a factor, but that it probably isn’t a main cause.

“Obesity may make it more challenging to diagnose,” she said. “But the jury is still out on directly causing.”

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or [email protected].


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