Anaplastic thyroid cancer

ADAM Health 3 minute read November 1, 2019

Alternative name: Anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid

Definition: Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer of the thyroid gland.


Causes

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is an invasive type of thyroid cancer that grows very rapidly. It occurs most often in people over age 60. It is more common in females than in males. The cause is unknown.

Anaplastic cancer accounts for only about less than 1% of all thyroid cancers in the United States.

 


Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness or changing voice
  • Loud breathing
  • Lower neck lump, which often grows quickly
  • Pain
  • Vocal cord paralysis
  • Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)


Exams and Tests

A physical exam almost always shows a growth in the neck region.

  • An MRI or CT scan of the neck may show a tumour growing from the thyroid gland.
  • A thyroid biopsy makes the diagnosis.
  • An examination of the airway with a fiberoptic scope (laryngoscopy) may show a paralyzed vocal cord.
  • A thyroid scan shows this growth to be “cold,” meaning it does not absorb a radioactive substance.

Thyroid function blood tests are normal in most cases.

 


Treatment

This type of cancer cannot be cured by surgery. Complete removal of the thyroid gland does not prolong the lives of people who have this type of cancer.

Of other treatment options, only radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy has a significant benefit.

Surgery to place a tube in the throat to help with breathing (tracheostomy) or in the stomach to help with eating (gastrostomy) may be needed during treatment.

For some people, enrolling in a clinical trial of new thyroid cancer treatments may be an option.


Support Groups

You can often ease the stress of illness by joining a support group of people sharing common experiences and problems.


Outlook (Prognosis)

The outlook with this disease is poor. Most people do not survive longer than 6 months because the disease is aggressive and there is a lack of effective treatment options.


Possible Complications

Complications may include:

  • Spread of tumour within the neck
  • Metastasis (spread) of cancer to other body tissues or organs


When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if there is a persistent lump or mass in the neck, hoarseness, changing voice, cough, or coughing up blood.

ReferencesKim M, Ladenson PW. Thyroid. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 226.

National Cancer Institute website. Thyroid cancer treatment (adult) (PDQ) – health professional version. www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/thyroid/HealthProfessional. Updated February 1, 2018. Accessed March 22, 2018.

Smith PW, Hanks LR, Salomone LJ, Hanks JB. Thyroid. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2017:chap 36.

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