Compare Monterey County to the rest of the state, and local cancer stats are pretty reassuring. The county ranks 33rd of 47 counties in overall cancer risk from 2004-2008, according to the California Cancer Registry.

So it’s a little surprising that Monterey County tops California’s thyroid cancer ranks over the same timeframe, with 13.5 cases per 100,000, compared to a state average of 9.5.

The California Environmental Health Tracking Program has similar findings. In 2005 – the program’s most recent available data – Monterey County topped the state with 17.1 cases of thyroid cancer per 100,000 residents, 41 percent higher than second-ranked Butte County.

Pamela Horn-Ross, a senior research scientist with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, cautions against putting too much emphasis on Monterey County’s first-place rank.

“It is up there, but it’s really not statistically different from some other counties,” she says.

Still, she allows, it’s near the top of the list. One possible explanation: Monterey County has a higher-than-average diagnosis rate.

“But we can’t account for all of the increase by screening,” she adds. “The increase is happening worldwide, in different ethnic and socioeconomic sub-groups that we would expect to have different rates of screening.”

Risk factors for thyroid cancer include radiation exposure, conditions such as goiter, and being a woman of reproductive age, particularly right after pregnancy. But since Monterey County hasn’t experienced an unusual baby boom or major nuclear exposure, Horn-Ross is stumped as to why a county with a low overall cancer rate would rank high for thyroid cancer.

The good news: The Cancer Registry puts Monterey 29th of 47 counties in terms of age-adjusted mortality from thyroid cancer, with fewer than 15 deaths in 2004-2008.Thyroid cancer is usually curable, according to Horn-Ross.

“They say it has the magic bullet, because it’s treated by removing the thyroid and then taking radioactive iodine,” says Jill Fitzgerald, a thyroid cancer survivor who runs the ThyCa Central California Support Group.

Prevention measures include the obvious diet high in fruits and vegetables. Strangely enough, alcohol and smoking may be two more – though Horn-Ross will only vouch for one.

“A drink a day is probably good for your heart and your thyroid,” she says. But while smoking tobacco may have a thyroid-friendly anti-estrogenic effect, “you will die of something much worse, much faster if you smoke.”

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