Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer

Anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC) is a very rare, but very aggressive cancer, representing only 1–2 percent of all thyroid cancers. People with anaplastic cancer are usually older with an average age at diagnosis of 65 to 75 years. It is rare to see ATC before the age of 40. Women are twice as likely as men to have anaplastic thyroid cancer.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of getting a disease. Different diseases have different risk factors. Some risk factors can be controlled with lifestyle changes. Other risk factors cannot be changed.

Patients with anaplastic thyroid cancer are usually past age 65 years. Many patients will have a history of thyroid cancer in the past or a long-standing goiter. A history of head and neck radiation or exposure to radioactive materials in one's past may increase the risk for ATC. 

Having one or more of the above risk factors does not mean that you will develop anaplastic thyroid cancer. Understanding your risk factors will help you determine, what, if any, precautions and possible screening options you should consider.

Symptoms

Patients will often have a rapidly growing neck mass that is usually associated with voice changes and hoarseness. Breathing difficulties, with a sense of choking or pressure on the neck is common, as well as swallowing difficulties. These changes can occur quickly over a period of weeks. 

Having one or more of the above symptoms does not mean that you have anaplastic thyroid cancer. If you believe you have anaplastic thyroid cancer, please contact your doctor.

Treatment

Surgical Treatment
Surgery to remove all of the disease possible is the best treatment for this cancer. Unfortunately, most patients have very advanced and large disease by the time it is determined that they have cancer. For this reason, few patients can undergo surgery. Even if the surgery is not curative, patients will likely do better overall if the tumor and the thyroid can be removed to avoid invasion into the throat. For patients who are not candidates for an attempt at curative resection, trying to relieve their symptoms (i.e. palliation) is an important consideration. Palliative surgery may include a tracheostomy tube (a tube placed through the skin in the neck into the trachea) for breathing, or a gastrostomy/feeding tube (i.e. stomach tube) if eating/swallowing becomes too difficult. As in all other thyroid surgeries, having a very experienced surgeon is extremely important for patients with ATC.

Non-Surgical Treatment 
If surgery is not an option, you should discuss other options with your oncologist.