A false alarm for President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner who had surgery for suspected thyroid cancer

Argentina president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

Argentina president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

There was good – and not so good – news for Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who had surgery for suspected thyroid cancer last week.

Tests show she didn’t have cancer after all. Her diagnosis changed after surgery revealed nodules in her thyroid were the result of benign thyroid disease.

On the plus side, it means she will not require radiotherapy or chemotherapy – but now, having no thyroid, she must take drugs for the rest of her life to replicate the metabolism-regulating hormones it produced. This is an unusual story – but one from which there is a lot to learn.

Could this diagnosis be made only after surgery

No, this is not the common route for diagnosis. A huge number of people have thyroid lumps – it is thought up to 40 per cent of the population, and not all these people have surgery. Usually tests are carried out to identify if the lump could be cancer, as about one in 20 will be. A patient is given a blood test and an ultrasound scan of the thyroid. If these tests yield suspicious results, a biopsy of the thyroid lump is taken, with a tiny amount of tissue removed using a needle.

That sounds painful. Is a thyroid biopsy safe

The procedure is safe but obviously uncomfortable. Under local anaesthetic, a needle is put into the lump to remove some cells to be evaluated for cancer. The risk of a biopsy is what’s called a false negative – you can take a small sample but actually miss the cancer. It is more likely if there are multiple lumps or one large lump.

So exactly what is benign thyroid disease

It is a lump in the thyroid that is not cancer. The cells are not malignant, just extra thyroid cells. Known as an adenoma, it is similar to having a mole on the skin.

Supporters stand next to a shirne with a figure of Jesus Christ and a portrait of their president outside the hospital

Supporters stand next to a shirne with a figure of Jesus Christ and a portrait of their president outside the hospital

Does benign thyroid disease hurt, and how is it treated

It doesn’t hurt. Normally a person with thyroid lumps will not even have abnormal thyroid test results and so will not require medication. The lumps are usually painless but sometimes they grow large enough to press on the throat and cause pain. This is unusual, but would require surgery.

So is this disease likely to lead to cancer

Having benign thyroid disease does make you slightly more prone to thyroid cancer. For this reason the lumps are carefully monitored with regular blood tests.

Do you think that Cristina has had an unnecessary operation

I don’t think so. Sometimes when there is more than one thyroid lump, as the president had, surgery is deemed less risky than taking multiple biopsies. There is no need to operate for benign thyroid lumps, but it is likely for the president surgery seemed the only option. Initial scans must have indicated a high risk of cancer and the doctors acted quickly to remove it. Tests suggested cancer when in fact she didn’t have it: this is known as a false positive.