Canadian doctors have pioneered an unusual way of protecting a cancer patient’s thyroid from harmful radiation treatments, by removing the gland and implanting it in the arm.

In a world first, doctors in Alberta performed the thyroid transfers in 10 patients with head and neck cancers, which usually involve radiation treatments. While radiation kills off cancer cells, it can also damage surrounding tissue and the thyroid, an important endocrine gland that controls metabolism and other body functions.

The results of the thyroid transfers were published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology.

Studies show that about half of patients treated for oral cancers end up with poorly functioning thyroids due to radiation treatments. The condition known as hypothyroidism can cause fatigue and weight gain, among other complications.

Joyce Krechkowski, 75, was the fourth patient to get a thyroid transfer pioneered by Dr. Jeffrey Harris and his team at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton.

Krechkowski underwent major surgery for oral cancer and had to have parts of her mouth and tongue rebuilt. To protect her thyroid from radiation, doctors removed it and implanted it in the crook of her elbow. 

The transfer works by removing enough of the thyroid to produce needed hormones and attaching it to a blood supply in the arm – where the thyroid stays for life.

In Krechkowski’s case, blood work has shown that her thyroid continues to function normally.

“It’s really fantastic what they can do now,” she told CTV News. “It's really amazing.”

Although Krechkowski can no longer swallow properly and must blend all of her food -- the consequences of her 17-hour surgery -- the fact that her thyroid has remained protected means she doesn’t have to take thyroid medication for the rest of her life. 

Harris, the site section chief of the otolaryngology -- head and neck surgery department at the University of Alberta Hospital, said Canadian experts now need to “train the world” to perform thyroid transfers.

He said the only significant risk associated with the procedure is nerve damage that could result in vocal cord paralysis and a hoarse voice, which can also occur during routine thyroid surgery. But he said the likelihood of such a complication is less than one per cent.

Dr. Brittany Barber, the chief resident at the hospital’s head and neck surgery division, said many cancer patients did not hesitate to try the thyroid transfer.

“Where it might seem like an absurd idea…patients are very eager to proceed,” she told CTV News. 
Barber said doctors are still following up with patients who’ve had the procedure. It’s been about 18 months since the surgery for most of them and their thyroids are still functioning well in their arms, she said.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip