Is thyroid cancer linked to new sofas?

I got cancer from my SOFA: Woman reveals shocking diagnosis that could be linked to the flame-retardants in her furniture

  • Juliet Shand, from Kent, was often teased about having a husky, gravelly voice 
  • But, after trouble swallowing food, tests showed she’d developed thyroid cancer 
  • Her treatment was successful, but cases have risen 139 per cent since the 1990s
  • A recent study found a link between the disease and some flame-retardent sofas

Juliet Shand thought nothing of it when she developed a deep, gravelly voice and laughed along with husband Matt when he joked that she sounded like Rod Stewart.

‘I’d always had a deeper voice than most women so I didn’t think it was anything sinister,’ says Juliet, 44, a recruitment manager, who lives in Wouldham, Kent with Matt, 45, a computer engineer and their children Joe, 18 and Eloise, 14.

‘I’d developed problems swallowing food — but it seemed to come and go, so I put it down to not chewing it properly,’ she says.

‘I was good at explaining away any symptoms as I hated going to the doctor. This went on for months.’

By April last year she had joint pain and was feeling tired so did visit her GP. A set of blood tests came back normal. ‘Luckily my GP examined my neck and although he didn’t tell me at the time, he felt a lump,’ recalls Juliet. ‘He referred me for an ultrasound of my thyroid gland.

‘My grandmother had a goitre, a non-cancerous enlarged thyroid gland, so I thought I probably had a similar problem and it could all be sorted out with a prescription.’

But five months later Juliet was digesting the news that she had cancer of the thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the throat that produces hormones for metabolism and energy.

Ironically it’s the same cancer that Rod Stewart was diagnosed with in 2000. Cases of this type of cancer have shot up 139 per cent since the Nineties, according to Cancer Research UK. One controversial theory is chemicals used in fireproofing may be partly to blame.

A study published in April by Duke University in the U.S. found an association between flame retardants used to treat sofas and mattresses and a higher rate of thyroid cancer. Researchers analysed dust samples from homes of patients with thyroid cancer, comparing them to a control group.

The dust from cancer patients’ houses had higher levels of two flame retardant chemicals. Homeowners living with the highest levels of the retardant decabromodiphenyl ether were twice as likely to have thyroid cancer as those with low concentrations.

UK scientists say the study is small and does not prove flame retardants cause cancer. ‘Even the author said the numbers were so small as not to be statistically significant,’ says Carl Alexander, health information officer at Cancer Research UK.

‘No causal link between these chemicals and cancer has been found. The levels of exposure to these chemicals is not high enough to cause any harm.’

 I was good at explaining away any symptoms as I hated going to the doctor. This went on for months.

A more convincing reason for the ‘explosion’ in thyroid cancer cases is that smaller tumours are now being picked up thanks to better imaging, says Dr Kristien Boelaert, a consultant endocrinologist at the Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research at the University of Birmingham.

Half of those diagnosed with the disease don’t have any symptoms, such as hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing or a lump in the neck when they are diagnosed. Instead, their cancer is detected during a routine scan for something else.

‘It’s estimated that about 30 per cent of the population have microcarcinomas — tiny tumours — of less than 1cm in diameter of the thyroid,’ says Dr Boelaert. ‘These may never get big enough to cause any problems.’

The problem is imaging alone can’t predict how the tumours may behave in the future and some grow bigger and spread. This raises questions about whether some people are undergoing treatments which bring their own risks of side-effects for a cancer that might never cause any symptoms.

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