Managing thyroid cancer in children, sometimes more complex than adults
Andrew J. Bauer, MD
is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and serves as the Director of the Thyroid Center in the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Bauer maintains active membership as a fellow in the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP), the Endocrine Society, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, and the American Thyroid Association. He also volunteers as a consultant for the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association and the Graves’ Disease and Thyroid Foundation. In the American Thyroid Association Dr. Bauer has recently served as a member of the pre-operative staging committee, the thyroid hormone replacement committee, and as a co-chair for the task force charged to author guidelines on the evaluation and treatment of pediatric thyroid nodules and differentiated thyroid cancer. His clinical and research areas of interest are focused on the study of pediatric thyroid disease, to include hyperthyroidism, thyroid nodular disease, thyroid cancer, and inherited syndromes associated with an increased risk of developing thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer.
In this episode Dr. Bauer shares the complexities of managing children with thyroid nodules, and differentiated thyroid cancer. This is a must listen interview for parents whose child has a thyroid nodule or thyroid cancer diagnosis.
There are a several important differences in how pediatric thyroid nodules and differentiated thyroid cancer (DTC) present and respond to therapy. Kids are less frequently diagnosed with a thyroid nodule; however, the risk for malignancy is four- to fivefold higher compared with an adult thyroid nodule. For DTC (specifically papillary thyroid cancer), more than 50% of pediatric-aged patients will have metastases to cervical lymph nodes at the time of diagnosis, but because the tumors typically retain the ability to absorb iodine (retain differentiation), disease-specific mortality is very low, with > 95% of pediatric patients surviving from the disease. This is true even for children with pulmonary metastases, which occur in approximately 15% of patients who present with lateral neck disease.
With the high risk for malignancy and the invasive potential of the cancer, there has been a stronger tendency to take kids with thyroid nodules to the operating room (OR) and to administer RAI to those found to have DTC. With a greater realization of the increased risk for surgical complications as well as the short- and long-term complications of RAI treatment, the guidelines emphasize the need for appropriate preoperative assessment of nodules, and the approach to surgical resection, and they provide a stratification system and guidance for surveillance to identify which patients may benefit from RAI. The stratification system, called the “ATA pediatric risk classification,” is not designed to identify patients at risk of dying of disease; it is designed to identify patients at increased likelihood of having persistent disease.
We have known about these differences for years, but the approach to evaluation and care has never been summarized into a pediatric-specific guideline. The adult guidelines aren’t organized to address the differences in presentation, and the adult staging systems are targeted to identify patients at increased risk for disease-specific mortality. So, the adult guidelines are not transferable to the pediatric population.