Could Your Tiny Thyroid Lump Be Harmless? Here’s What Dartmouth Researchers Say

A rapid increase in thyroid cancer cases has been observed in recent years. But with this increase comes a concerning trend: many patients are being treated for thyroid cancers that are insignificant and never pose a risk to their health. According to a study by researchers at Dartmouth, overdiagnosis and overtreatment of thyroid cancers are becoming an alarming problem.

The Subtleties of Thyroid Cancer

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck. It produces hormones that control your metabolism, the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. When abnormal cells grow in the thyroid gland, it can lead to thyroid cancer.

There are several types of thyroid cancer, including papillary, follicular, medullary, and anaplastic. Some of these types grow very slowly and might never cause any symptoms, whereas others are more aggressive and can spread to other parts of the body. The prognosis for thyroid cancer varies depending on factors such as the type and stage of cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health.

Overdiagnosis and Unnecessary Treatment

The Dartmouth study highlights a concerning issue: many of the thyroid cancers being diagnosed and treated today are insignificant and would never grow large enough to be dangerous. This is similar to the overdiagnosis of prostate cancer, where men are being treated for cancers that would likely never harm them.

It was discovered that people with good health insurance were more likely to have unnecessary treatment for thyroid cancer. Having access to frequent medical tests and screenings increases the chances of discovering these insignificant thyroid cancers, leading to overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

The Dangers of Overtreatment

While it may seem like a non-issue to treat a harmless thyroid cancer, the process of treatment itself carries risks. Depending on the treatment chosen, surgery to remove the thyroid can result in complications such as low blood calcium levels, voice changes, or even damage to the parathyroid glands. Furthermore, radioactive iodine therapy – a common treatment for thyroid cancer – entails exposure to radiation, which can increase the risk of developing secondary cancers later in life.

The overdiagnosis of thyroid cancer also has implications on a societal level, as the costs of these unnecessary treatments add up. In the United States, the estimated annual cost of overdiagnosing and overtreating thyroid cancers is $1.6 billion.

What Should You Do?

So, what should you do if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer? First and foremost, seek a second opinion. It’s crucial to ensure that the diagnosis is accurate and that treatment truly is necessary. Discuss the potential risks and benefits of treatment with your healthcare providers, and carefully consider whether or not the potential dangers of treatment outweigh the risks posed by the cancer itself.

Stay informed about the different types of thyroid cancer, their typical behaviors, and how they are detected. Educate yourself about common biopsy methods such as fine needle aspiration and core needle biopsy, as false positives can occur. Make sure that you understand the potential long-term effects of thyroid cancer treatments, and be prepared to discuss alternative options with your healthcare providers.

Finally, keep in mind that your commitment to a healthy lifestyle can play a significant role in minimizing your risk of developing thyroid cancer and improving your overall well-being. Maintaining a balanced diet, managing stress, getting regular exercise, and avoiding exposure to environmental toxins can all contribute to a healthier thyroid gland and a lower risk of both cancer and other thyroid-related illnesses.


The overdiagnosis and overtreatment of thyroid cancer is a pressing issue in the world of healthcare, potentially placing patients at risk for unnecessary interventions and exposing them to other health risks. By staying informed about thyroid cancer and carefully considering treatment options, you can make the best decisions for your health and avoid becoming a victim of overdiagnosis.