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Anaplastic thyroid cancer

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

Alternative Names

Anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid

Causes

Anaplastic thyroid cancer grows very rapidly and is an invasive type of thyroid cancer . It occurs most often in people over age 60. The cause is unknown.

Anaplastic cancer accounts for only about 1% of all thyroid cancers.

Symptoms

  • Cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness or changing voice
  • Loud breathing
  • Lower neck lump, which often grows quickly

Exams and Tests

A physical examination almost always show a growth in the neck region.

  • A CT scan or MRI of the neck may show a tumor 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 usually normal.

Treatment

This type of cancer cannot be cured by surgery. Complete removal of the thyroid gland does not prolong most patients' lives.

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 patients, 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

  • Spread of tumor 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.

References

Ladenson P, Kim M. Thyroid. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 244.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Guidelines in Oncology 2010: Thyroid Cancer. Version 1.2010.

Updated: 3/23/2014

Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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