Radiation: Putting You at Risk?

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.

Women, are you aware that you could have a serious medical issue staring at you each time you look in the mirror? Recently, I watched a show explaining the fastest growing cancers in women one of which is thyroid cancer. The number of cases have doubled since the 1970s which has left experts wondering why. Thyroid cancer is four times more common in women than men, which naturally points to estrogen as the culprit (4). However, researchers believe women are at increased risk because they are exposed to more radiation during dental and mammogram examinations.  The thyroid gland is sensitive to radiation exposure; it’s a leading risk factor for the condition especially if exposure occurred during childhood.

At your dentist office you may recall them using an apron when taking your dental x-rays, but is the flap lifted and wrapped around your neck?  When receiving a mammogram there is something called a “thyroid guard,” but often this device is not utilized. The show featured a woman who had recently received her yearly mammogram. Despite feeling uncomfortable doing so, she asked the technician if there was a “thyroid guard.” To her surprise, the technician pulled one out of the drawer.  When asked why they did not use them routinely, the technician proceeded to say, “I don’t know, we only use them when requested.”  I found this absolutely appalling considering this cancer rate is growing. Our medical system is not only failing to raise awareness about this issue but also failing to take proper preventative measures.

The thyroid gland works as the body’s engine; it makes a hormone that is used to fuel metabolism and looks over other critical hormones produced elsewhere in the body.  Nodules – a small or large cluster of cells, can be cancerous or non cancerous.  About 1 in 20 nodules are cancerous (4).

Though thyroid cancer does not typically produce symptoms, larger masses can cause the following:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore throat or pain in the neck
  • Voice changes or hoarseness
  • Persistent cough
  • Trouble breathing

To take a proactive approach to your health, watch this video demonstrate how to properly perform a thyroid self – exam.  But more than checking for it’s presence, we need to take steps to prevent this cancer from developing. A recent study suggests that physical activity is associated with a decreased risk among normal weight or underweight women, particularly among those who averaged at least 16 and a half hours per week per year of activity from high school through age 54 years. These individuals experienced a 40% risk reduction for thyroid cancer (3).  Unfortunately in this study, the association of physical activity and decreased risk of thyroid cancer did not present itself among overweight or obese women.  While physical activity starting from a younger age and continuing as one ages showed to have more risk reduction than starting physical activity at an older age, activity was still suggested to reduce ones risk of thyroid cancer.

An additional way to prevent thyroid cancer/complications is to increase your selenium intake.  Selenium is a trace mineral (non living element that is important to the nutrition of humans, animals, and plants) which has massive health promoting qualities.  Selenium is responsible for maintaining thyroid hormone levels, improving muscle strength, boosting immune function, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancers, and promoting normal liver function.  In 2003 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a qualified health claim that states selenium may reduce the risk of certain cancers (2). A good way to obtain your daily selenium intake (200 mcg – micrograms) is to eat two to three Brazil nuts a day. Other sources include (1):

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Fish (tuna, halibut, sardines, flounder, salmon)
  • Shellfish (oysters, mussels, shrimp, clams, scallops)
  • Meat (beef, liver, lamb, pork)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms (button, crimini, shiitake)
  • Grains (wheat germ, barley, brown rice, oats)
  • Onions

So try to take some of these preventative measures, or better yet all of them. And we ask that you help us spread the message about asking for the thyroid guard when being exposed to radiation so that maybe we can keep the number of cases of thyroid cancer from sky rocketing any further.


  1. 10 Foods Rich in Selenium. (2011). In Fit Day. Retrieved February 7, 2013, from http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/vitamins-minerals/10-foods-rich-in-selenium.html
  2. Brown, J. (2009). NUT CRACKER. Flex, 27(1), 142.
  3. Cash, S. W., Ma, H., Horn-Ross, P. L., Reynolds, P., Canchola, A. J., Sullivan-Halley, J., & Beresford, S. A. (2012, July 7). Recreational physical activity and risk of papillary thyroid cancer among women in the California Teachers Study. Caner Epidemiology, Detection, and Prevention, 37(2013), 46-53.
  4. Oz, M. (2010, September). The Increase in Thyroid Cancer. In Dr. Oz. Retrieved February 27,2013, from http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/increase-thyroid-cancer
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