What is anaplastic thyroid cancer?

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most aggressive and one of the least common types of thyroid cancer. Anaplasia refers to a loss of resemblance to the normal thyroid gland.

How common is anaplastic thyroid cancer?

Only 2 – 5% of all thyroid cancers are anaplastic. The annual incidence is about 2 per million.

What causes anaplastic thyroid cancer?

This is largely unknown, but 20% of patients have a history of the much more common (differentiated) types of thyroid cancer, usually papillary type. Occasionally, anaplastic thyroid cancer can be found co-existing with a these aggressive types of thyroid cancer. Treatment must be directed at the anaplastic component.

What are the symptoms of anaplastic thyroid cancer?

Anaplastic thyroid cancer usually presents with a rapidly growing neck mass. The mass can be growing in the thyroid and/or into the lymph nodes of the neck. Compression or invasion of surrounding structures can cause hoarseness, neck pain, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and cough.

How is anaplastic thyroid cancer diagnosed?

A thyroid biopsy should be done quickly by a surgeon or radiologist. This is usually a needle (or core needle) biopsy rather than an open biopsy.

What happens after the biopsy?

After the biopsy additional imaging studies will be performed to determine the extent (stage) of the disease. The lung is the most common site of metastatic spread (90%). Five to ten percent of patients have spread to the bones, and occasionally there is spread to the skin, kidney, liver, pancreas, heart, and adrenal glands.

What is the prognosis of anaplastic thyroid cancer?

The prognosis depends on the extent of the disease and the response to therapy, and is different for each patient.

How is anaplastic thyroid cancer treated?

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is usually treated with radiation treatments to the neck and systemic chemotherapy. Newer (so-called “targeted”) chemotherapy also looks promising. The most active traditional chemotherapy drug is paclitaxel (Taxol).

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