Thyroid Cancer Risk

Checklists that reel off thyroid cancer risk factors, cancer symptoms or thyroid disease rates can seem either alarming or reassuring, depending on how closely they match your situation.

When the stakes are high, you can easily forget that “risk factors” refer only to an unknown probability of something going wrong. Having several risk factors doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a disease, just as not having any risk factors is no guarantee that you won’t.

The reason to be aware of risk factors and cancer symptoms is so that you can know what factors are under your control and what you should be discussing with your physician. You may be able to minimize your risk of developing thyroid cancer by making a few lifestyle changes. An early diagnosis is likely to improve your chance of surviving cancer, so regular check-ups are critical if you’re at risk.

As with all forms of cancer, facts are your friend. The more you know about your thyroid cancer risks, symptoms of thyroid disease and cancer symptoms, the better you can take care of yourself and those you care about.

Common Thyroid Cancer Risk Factors

Your good health isn’t always under your control. Diet and exercise won’t change these risk factors:

  • Age: Unlike most cancers, papillary and follicular thyroid cancers are most common in people between 20 and 60.
  • Family history: Medullary thyroid cancers have a strong genetic component, with 20 percent of cases linked to a specific abnormal gene. However, only about 5 percent of papillary and follicular thyroid cancers can be linked to family histories. If you have a family history of goiters (enlarged thyroid glands), you might have an increased thyroid cancer risk.
  • Gender: A risk factor you can’t change is your gender. Women are three times more likely than men to get thyroid cancer.
  • Iodine levels: Iodine is very important for proper thyroid functioning. In parts of the world where little iodine is present in the soil, the follicular thyroid cancer risk is higher. In the U.S., iodized salt and other foods have helped even out regional differences in the soil.
  • Radiation exposure: People who have been exposed to nuclear radiation through medical procedures or fall-out from nuclear accidents, testing and weapons are at an increased risk for thyroid cancer.
  • Volcano proximity: Italian researchers recently found that people living near an active volcano in Sicily have double the regional rate of papillary thyroid cancer.

Thyroid Cancer Risk Factors Don’t Explain Everything

Information on risk factors can encourage active monitoring for cancer symptoms. Nevertheless, experts say that 95 percent of the most common forms of thyroid cancer–papillary and follicular thyroid cancers–lack a direct link to most known risk factors.

Even if you and your family members don’t have many thyroid cancer risk factors, watching for signs of thyroid disease continues to be a good idea. Be sure to see a doctor if you notice a swelling or lump in your neck.


American Cancer Society staff. (2009). What are the risk factors for thyroid cancer? Retrieved March 3, 2010, from the American Cancer Society Web site:

HealthDay staff. (2009). Thyroid cancer higher in volcanic areas. Retrieved March 3, 2010, from the HealthDay Web site:

Stetler, C. (2009). Thyroid cancer report: Are you at risk? Retrieved March 3, 2010, from the American University School of Communication Web site:

Mayo Clinic staff. (2010). Risk factors. Retrieved March 3, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic Web site: