Do you visit your dentist once a year or get an annual mammogram? Did you know that thyroid cancer is the fastest growing cancer in women? At first glance, teeth and mammograms don’t seem like they’d be related to thyroid cancer, but according to a story from Dr. Oz that keeps circulating on the Internet, there is evidence that exposure to radiation from dental x-rays and mammograms may contribute to thyroid cancer in women.
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck and below the voice box. The thyroid makes hormones that control heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and the rate at which our food is turned into energy, but sometimes, it can go awry. We know that women who received moderate levels of radiation during the 1950s and 60s to treat acne, tonsillitis and other head and neck problems, or from radiation therapy used to treat Hodgkins Lymphoma, have a higher risk of developing some types of thyroid cancer. In Eastern Europe there’s an even higher risk of thyroid cancer among people who, as children and adolescents, were exposed to excess radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But do most of us really have to fear thyroid cancer from x-rays and mammograms?
Dr. Mehmet Oz, surgeon and TV personality, suggests the next time our dentist wants to take x-rays of our teeth, we should ask for a lead thyroid guard, a flap that can be wrapped around the neck to protect the thyroid. Dr. Oz also informs us that radiologists who routinely do mammograms have thyroid guards, but since most of us have never heard of, or asked for one, it may be in a drawer somewhere and not readily available. While a thyroid guard sounds like a simple solution, the plot unfortunately thickens. There are drawbacks to using a thyroid guard during mammograms because guards can obscure part of the breast tissue or can produce shadows, thereby causing us to need another mammogram, which in turn, exposes us to double the dose of radiation.
In April 2011, the American College of Radiology and Society of Breast Imaging issued a statement disclaiming the notion that mammograms expose women to enough radiation to raise concerns about thyroid cancer. Even so, the Dr. Oz story continues to circulate on the Internet, raising concerns among women. So what do we do?
An argument can be made that even though our radiation risk is small, albeit cumulative over our lifetime, perhaps we should err on the side of caution and ask for a thyroid guard. On the other hand, the benefits of a mammogram shouldn’t prevent us from getting one annually, and since poor dental health can be a contributing factor to heart disease and strokes, let’s not forgo our visit to the dentist either. In the meantime, the controversy continues. Will you ask for a thyroid guard?