A risk factor is anything that affects a person's chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for a number of cancers.
But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may not have had any known risk factors. Even if a person with thyroid cancer has a risk factor, it is very hard to know how much that risk factor may have contributed to the cancer.
Scientists have found a few risk factors that make a person more likely to develop thyroid cancer.
Gender and age:
For unclear reasons thyroid cancers (like almost all diseases of the thyroid) occur about 3 times more often in women than in men.
Thyroid cancer can occur at any age, but risk peaks for women when they are between the ages of 45 and 49 years.
For men, risk peaks between the ages of 65 and 69 years.
A diet low in iodine
Follicular thyroid cancers are more common in areas of the world where people's diets are low in iodine. In the United States, dietary iodine is plentiful because iodine is added to table salt and other foods. A diet low in iodine may also increase the risk of papillary cancer if the person also is exposed to radioactivity.
Exposure to radiation is a proven risk factor for thyroid cancer. Sources of such radiation include certain medical treatments, common dental x-rays and radiation fallout from power plant accidents or nuclear weapons. Having had head or neck radiation treatments in childhood is a risk factor for thyroid cancer. Risk depends on how much radiation is given and the age of the child.
In general, the risk increases as the dose increases, also the risk is higher with lower (younger) ages at treatment. In the past, children were sometimes treated with low doses of radiation for things we wouldn't use radiation for now, like acne, fungus infections of the scalp (ringworm), an enlarged thymus gland, or to shrink tonsils or adenoids. Years later, the people who had these treatments were found to have an increased risk of thyroid cancer.
Radiation therapy in childhood for some cancers such as lymphoma, Wilms tumor, and neuroblastoma also increases risk. Thyroid cancers associated with prior radiation therapy are not more serious than other thyroid cancers.
Being exposed to radiation as an adult carries much less risk of thyroid cancer.
Several studies have pointed to an increased risk of thyroid cancer in children because of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons or power plant accidents. For instance, thyroid cancer is several times more common than normal in children living near Chernobyl, the site of a 1986 nuclear plant accident that exposed millions of people to radioactivity.
Adults involved with the cleanup after the accident and those who lived near the plant have also had a higher rate of thyroid cancer. Children with more iodine in their diet appeared to have a lower risk.
Some radioactive fallout occurred over certain regions of the United States after nuclear weapons were tested in western states during the 1950s. This exposure was much, much lower than that around Chernobyl. A higher risk of thyroid cancer has not been proven at these low exposure levels. If you are concerned about possible exposure to radioactive fallout, discuss this with your doctor.
Several inherited conditions have been linked to different types of thyroid cancer.
Medullary thyroid cancer: About 1 out of 4 medullary thyroid carcinomas (MTCs) result from inheriting an abnormal gene. These cases are known as familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (FMTC). FMTC can occur alone, or it can be seen along with other tumors.
The combination of FMTC and tumors of other endocrine glands is called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN 2). There are 2 subtypes, MEN 2a and MEN 2b, both are caused by mutations (defects) in a gene called RET.
•In MEN 2a, MTC occurs along with pheochromocytomas (tumors that make adrenaline) and with parathyroid gland tumors.
•In MEN 2b, MTC is associated with pheochromocytomas and with benign growths of nerve tissue on the tongue and elsewhere called neuromas. This subtype is much less common than MEN 2a.
In these inherited forms of MTC, the cancers often develop during childhood or early adulthood and can spread early. MTC is most aggressive in the MEN 2b syndrome. If MEN 2a, MEN 2b, or isolated FMTC runs in your family, then you may be at very high risk of developing MTC.
Ask your doctor for information about having regular blood tests or ultrasound exams to look for problems and the possibility of genetic testing.
Other thyroid cancers: People with certain inherited medical conditions are at higher risk for more common forms of thyroid cancer. Higher rates of the disease occur among people with uncommon genetic conditions such as:
•Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP):
People with this syndrome develop colon polyps and have a very high risk of colon cancer. They also have an increased risk of some other cancers, including papillary thyroid cancer. Gardner syndrome is a subtype of FAP in which patients also get certain benign tumors. Both Gardner syndrome and FAP are caused by defects in the gene APC.
People with this syndrome have increased risk of thyroid, endometrial (uterine), and breast cancers. The thyroid cancers tend to be either of the papillary or follicular type. This syndrome is caused by defects in the gene PTEN.
•Carney complex, type I:
People with this syndrome may develop a number of benign tumors and hormone problems. They also have an increased risk of papillary and follicular thyroid cancers. It is caused by defects in the gene PRKAR1A.
If you suspect you may have a familial condition, discuss it with your doctor who might recommend genetic counseling if your medical history warrants it.
Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers do seem to run in some families without a known inherited syndrome; this may account for about 5% of thyroid cancers. The genetic basis for these cancers is not totally clear and may just be related to the fact that thyroid cancers are common cancers.
Last Medical Review: 05/12/2010
Last Revised: 07/20/2010