Differences in Thyroid Nodule Cytology and Malignancy Risk Between Children and Adults

Christine E Cherella, Trevor E Angell, Danielle M Richman, Mary C Frates, Carol B Benson, Francis D Moore, Justine A Barletta, Monica Hollowell, Jessica R Smith, Erik K Alexander, Edmund S Cibas, Ari J Wassner
Thyroid: Official Journal of the American Thyroid Association 2019, 29 (8): 1097-1104
Background: The Bethesda System for Reporting Thyroid Cytopathology (BSRTC) is used to interpret fine-needle aspiration (FNA) cytology of thyroid nodules in children and adults. Nodule management is guided by the implied malignancy risk of each cytological category, which has been derived from adult populations. Whether these implied risks are applicable to pediatric thyroid nodules remains uncertain. We compared malignancy rates between pediatric and adult thyroid nodules within each cytological category. Methods: We evaluated consecutive thyroid nodules ≥1 cm that underwent FNA at the Boston Children's Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital from 1998 to 2016. All cytology was interpreted by a single cytopathology group according to the BSRTC. Malignancy rates were compared between pediatric (<19 years) and adult (≥19 years) patients. Results: Four hundred thirty pediatric thyroid nodules and 13,415 adult nodules were analyzed. Pediatric nodules were more likely to be malignant than adult nodules (19% vs. 12%, p  = 0.0002). Within cytological categories, malignancy rates were higher in pediatric nodules than in adult nodules that were cytologically nondiagnostic (11% vs. 4%, p  = 0.03), atypia of undetermined significance (AUS; 44% vs. 22%, p  = 0.004), or suspicious for follicular neoplasm (SFN; 71% vs. 28%, p  = 0.001). There were no significant differences between children and adults in the types of thyroid cancers diagnosed in these cytological categories. Among cytologically benign nodules, the difference in malignancy rates was statistically significant but clinically minimal (0.7% vs. 1%, p  = 0.001). Malignancy rates did not differ between children and adults among nodules with cytology suspicious for papillary carcinoma (73% vs. 68%, p  = 0.67) or positive for malignancy (97% vs. 95%, p  = 1). Among the subset of nodules that were resected, the malignancy rate was higher in children than in adults only in nodules that were SFN (71% vs. 36%, p  = 0.007). Conclusions: Among thyroid nodules that are cytologically AUS, SFN, or nondiagnostic, malignancy rates are higher in children than in adults. These discrepancies likely represent true differences in malignancy risk between pediatric and adult patients, rather than differences in cytological interpretation. Our findings provide pediatric-specific data to inform the optimal management of thyroid nodules in children, which may differ from that of adult nodules with equivalent cytology.


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