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Safe to Expand Limits of Active Surveillance in Thyroid Cancer?

Expanding eligibility for active surveillance in low-risk papillary thyroid cancer appears to be safe, a new prospective trial indicates.

Researchers found that doubling the limits for tumor size to 2 cm and nearly doubling the limits for tumor growth in low-risk papillary thyroid cancer showed no increased risk of adverse outcomes or mortality for patients undergoing active surveillance vs surgery.

"The results of this nonrandomized controlled trial suggest the basis of a more permissive strategy for thyroid cancer management, strengthening the evidence for active surveillance and broadening potential candidacy to most diagnosed thyroid cancers," the authors conclude. "By extending [tumor] size/growth limits, these study results potentially broaden the potential candidacy for active surveillance and reduce the likelihood of surgery by lengthening the window of observation."

However, "the expanded parameters are quite controversial," first author Allen S. Ho, MD, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California, told Medscape Medical News. Prior studies have only examined tumor size limits up to 1 cm and "clinicians rarely recommend active surveillance up to 2 cm," Ho noted. "As far as we know, Cedars-Sinai is the only place that will consider it."

In addition, the ultimate decision surrounding active surveillance vs surgery may depend on the patient's level of anxiety, researchers found.

The research was published this month in JAMA Oncology.

The potential to expand criteria for thyroid cancer active surveillance comes amid ongoing concerns surrounding overtreatment. Advances in technology have led to increased detection of small, often indolent thyroid cancers that can likely be monitored safely through active surveillance but may present decision-making challenges for clinicians about whether to treat or watch and wait.

Similar challenges in prostate cancer have been addressed with tiered risk stratification, but such guidelines have not been as firmly established in thyroid cancer.

Guidelines from the American Thyroid Association in 2015 suggest active surveillance as an alternative for every low-risk tumors; however, studies in general have recommended the approach for initial tumor sizes of only up to 1 cm and with growth of less than 3 mm. And overall, active surveillance has not been broadly adopted as an option in thyroid cancer, the authors explained.

To determine if criteria for active surveillance can be safely expanded to tumors up to 2 cm and for those with growth up to 5 mm, Ho and colleagues compared outcomes among 222 patients with Bethesda 5 or 6 nodules of 2 cm or smaller who received either active surveillance or immediate surgery.

The patients were recruited from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center between 2014 and 2021. Patients were a median 46.8 years old; 76% were female.

The median size of tumors was 11 mm, with about 60% representing larger tumors (10.1 to 20 mm) and 20.6% measuring 15.1 to 20 mm.

About half of patients (n = 112) chose active surveillance. The median size of tumors in this group was smaller than those in the surgery group (10.1 mm vs 12 mm). Tumor growth exceeded 5 mm in 3.6% of cases, and tumor volume increases of more than 100% occurred in 7% of cases.

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