Radiation exposure is an established cause of clinical thyroid cancer, but little is known about radiation effects on papillary microcarcinoma (PMC) of the thyroid, a relatively common subclinical thyroid malignancy. Because the incidence of these small thyroid cancers has been increasing, it is important to better understand them and their relationship to radiation.
PMCs were identified in a subset of 7659 members of the Life Span Study of atomic-bomb survivors who had archived autopsy or surgical materials. We conducted a pathology review of these specimens and evaluated the histological features of the tumors and the association between PMCs and thyroid radiation dose.
From 1958 to1995, 458 PMCs were detected among 313 study subjects. The majority of cancers exhibited pathologic features of papillary thyroid cancers. Overall, 81% of the PMCs were of the sclerosing variant and 91% were nonencapsulated, psammoma bodies occurred in 13% and calcification was observed in 23%. Over 95% had papillary or papillary-follicular architecture and most displayed nuclear overlap, clear nuclei, and nuclear grooves. Several of these features increased with increasing tumor size, but no association was found with radiation dose. A significant radiation-dose response was found for the prevalence of PMCs (estimated excess odds ratio/Gy=0.57; 95% CI: 0.01-1.55), with the excess risk observed primarily among females.
Low-to-moderate doses of ionizing radiation appears to increase the risk of thyroid PMCs, even when exposure occurs during adulthood.