What is Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer?

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a type of thyroid gland malignancy that generally affects individuals of advanced age, commonly 60 years of age and older. Possessing an aggressive nature that makes it resistant to conventional therapies, this atypical form of cancer carries a relatively high mortality rate. Treatment generally involves the surgical excision of the tumor and thyroid gland followed by the administration of radiation therapy.

Individuals who develop anaplastic thyroid cancer may experience a variety of signs and symptoms. The most common symptoms associated with this form of malignancy include an inability to swallow properly and the development of a chronic cough. Some individuals may also develop hoarseness, noticeable swelling of the neck, and a bloody cough.

Imaging tests are frequently utilized to confirm a diagnosis of anaplastic thyroid cancer. Following an initial consultation and physical examination, an individual is generally referred for a computerized tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the neck and surrounding area. A blood test may be ordered to evaluate the individual’s hormone levels, including thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), and to check for markers indicative of the presence of cancer. Additional testing may involve an evaluation of the individual’s airways, voice box, and thyroid gland with the aid of a laryngoscopy and isotope study.


Due to its rapid growth, anaplastic thyroid cancer is nearly always diagnosed as a stage four, or advanced, carcinoma. Initial treatment involves the surgical excision of the cancerous growth as well as the partial or complete removal of the thyroid gland, a procedure known as a thyroidectomy. Conducted under general anesthesia, a thyroidectomy carries significant risk for complications, including nerve damage that may affect one's ability to breathe or speak normally. During the thyroidectomy, surrounding lymph nodes and tissues may also be removed for further laboratory analysis. Individuals who are unable to undergo surgery may be given radiation therapy to inhibit further tumor growth.

Unlike other forms of thyroid cancer, anaplastic thyroid cancer does not respond to traditional chemotherapy and radioactive iodine treatments. Radiation therapy has been established as the only treatment option to which this form of cancer may respond. The use of highly concentrated X-rays to target cancerous cells as employed with radiation may ultimately help shrink the tumor in some cases. Depending on the dose, application method, and frequency of administration, those who undergo radiation therapy may experience side effects that can include fatigue, irritation at the administration site, and nausea.

Individuals whose invasive anaplastic thyroid cancer has affected surrounding organs, including the windpipe, and impaired their ability to breathe properly may undergo a tracheostomy. Performed under general anesthesia, a tracheostomy involves the placement of a breathing tube to establish an artificial airway and ease one's ability to breathe on his or her own. A tracheostomy procedure does carry risk for complications that may include infection, nerve damage, and excessive bleeding.

The aggressive nature of anaplastic thyroid cancer greatly affects its prognosis. Generally, the mortality rate associated with this form of cancer is relatively high, with an overall survival rate of less than one year following diagnosis. Individuals who receive a diagnosis of anaplastic thyroid cancer are often encouraged to join a support group that fosters education and amity. The main complication associated with this type of thyroid cancer is metastasis, or the dispersion of cancerous cells throughout the body.



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