Does Radioactive Iodine Therapy for Hyperthyroidism Cause Cancer?

The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism

Published:  23 September 2021


Radioactive iodine has been considered a safe and effective therapeutic option for hyperthyroidism secondary to Graves’ disease and autonomously functioning thyroid nodules since the mid-20th century. The question of whether I-131 at the doses used for hyperthyroidism might increase the risk of cancer has been investigated in a number of observational cohort studies over the years, with the preponderance of evidence being reassuring as to its safety. In particular, the 1998 Cooperative Thyrotoxicosis Therapy Follow-up Study (CTTFUS) has been widely cited as compelling evidence that I-131 is safe in hyperthyroidism therapy with respect to carcinogenesis. However, in 2019, a study by Kitahara and colleagues re-analyzed the CTTFUS cohort, extending the follow-up time and applying a novel dosimetric model for estimating tissue absorbed doses of radiation. This new analysis concluded that radioactive iodine was associated with an increased risk for mortality from overall cancer, breast cancer, and non-breast solid cancers. Reaction to this study was vociferous and particularly negative in the nuclear medicine literature. This mini-review was inspired by the 2019 CTTFUS controversy, and is intended to provide the necessary context for clinicians to provide nuanced advice to their patients on the subject. To that end, the pre-2019 literature is surveyed, the 2019 CTTFUS study and a 2020 follow-up are discussed, and lessons from the literature and critical commentaries are considered.