We performed a retrospective study of 859 patients with papillary thyroid cancer, who had received their primary treatment at the Mayo Clinic during the period 1946 through 1970. The maximal follow-up was 39 years. All but 2 patients underwent a thyroid operation; 319 (37%) had metastatic cervical nodes. Of the 800 patients without distant metastatic lesions on initial examination who underwent a potentially curative surgical procedure, postoperatively 7% had nodal metastatic lesions, 6% had a local tumor recurrence, and 5% had a distant metastatic lesion. In patients who had intrathyroidal tumors initially, postoperative local recurrences or distant metastatic lesions resulted in a 10-year cancer mortality of 17 and 41%, respectively; in those with extrathyroidal tumors, postoperative recurrences were associated with significantly higher death rates. Death from thyroid cancer was highly associated with the following factors: age more than 50 years, male sex, tumor size, tumor grade, initial extent of disease, and absence of Hashimoto's disease. Earlier studies of Mayo patients treated between 1926 and 1960 described no deaths due to thyroid cancer in patients with occult tumors (1.5 cm or less). Four such patients were identified among our 859 patients; all had been examined and treated after 1961. To date, 56 (6.5%) of the 859 patients have died as a result of papillary thyroid cancer. In this study, in which 16% of patients underwent total thyroidectomy and 3% had radioiodine ablation, the overall mortality observed at 30 years was only 3% above that expected.
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