What is Anaplastic Carcinoma?

D. Jeffress

Anaplastic carcinoma is a rare but very deadly form of thyroid cancer that can cause severe breathing difficulties. Symptoms tend to appear suddenly and the cancer can spread to lymph nodes and other body tissue very quickly. Patients have the best chance of survival when their symptoms are recognized, diagnosed, and treated right away. Surgery can be effective if cancer is isolated to the thyroid, but many patients need to receive chemotherapy or radiation to combat a spreading malignancy.

Cancerous cells could spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.
Cancerous cells could spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.

Doctors are unsure what causes anaplastic carcinoma, but several risk factors have been identified. The cancer is most commonly seen in patients over the age of sixty, and women are about three times as likely to develop anaplastic carcinoma as males. People who have iodine deficiencies due to hormonal imbalances or a lack of iodine-rich foods in the diet are at an increased risk of thyroid problems. In addition, patients who have been diagnosed and treated for other more common types of thyroid disorders, such as goiters and follicular cancer, are more likely to develop anaplastic carcinoma.

A person with an iodine deficiency is at an increased risk for thyroid disorders.
A person with an iodine deficiency is at an increased risk for thyroid disorders.

The first signs of a developing tumor are usually shortness of breath, fatigue, and hoarseness. Within months, a lump in the front of the throat can be seen and felt. As a tumor continues to grow, it can make swallowing very difficult and cause a chronic, painful, bloody cough. The lymph nodes in the neck may start to swell and become tender once the cancer starts to spread.

An oncologist can diagnose anaplastic carcinoma by feeling the neck mass, asking about symptoms, and taking computerized tomography scans of the neck and chest. When a tumor is discovered, a tissue sample is collected by fine needle aspiration. A surgeon inserts a hollow needle into the center of the mass and draws tiny pieces of tissue and fluid into a syringe. Treatment decisions are considered immediately after biopsy results reveal anaplastic carcinoma.

If cancer is isolated to the thyroid, a surgeon may be able to remove the gland and preserve surrounding tissue. In most cases, however, cancer has already spread before surgery can take place. A combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are needed to combat cancer in the lymph nodes and trachea. If cancer reaches the lungs, bones, or brain, it is almost always fatal despite treatment efforts. In general, patients who receive early diagnoses and undergo regular treatments can outlast the average survival rate of six months to one year.

Anaplastic carcinoma that spreads to the brain is almost always fatal.
Anaplastic carcinoma that spreads to the brain is almost always fatal.

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Discussion Comments


My mother passed from Anaplastic Carcinoma in December 2013. She fought to survive for three years, bless her heart. I hate that not much is known about this type of thyroid cancer and of course, not everyone's case is different. I pray that for people who read this that are personally affected in some way by this detrimental disease, don't let the survival rates and statistics bring you down, but look to the Lord in prayer for guidance and help with recovery and healing.


There is a lot of hopelessness on the internet about this cancer, so I want to mention that it is possible to survive anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid. My brother-in-law had it twelve years ago. He has been cancer-free and very healthy for the past eleven years!


@turkay1-- My grandmother died from anaplastic thyroid carcinoma and I know from her case that this type of cancer also causes coughing, difficulty breathing and swallowing and a huge lump on the neck. So I'm sure that if this happened to you, you would know that there is something wrong.

I suppose the lump could be confused with goiter which is not uncommon with hypothyroidism, but the lump from anaplastic carcinoma grows very quickly. My grandmother had nothing one week, and a huge lump the next week.

I hope no one will ever have this type of cancer. It's very aggressive and takes a loved one away too quickly.


This sounds very scary. Is anaplastic carcinoma seen often in people with hypothyroidism?

I have hypothyroidism and if I had anaplastic carcinoma, I think it would be difficult for me to notice because hypothyroidism causes many of these symptoms. I have hoarseness and a swollen throat all the time. Fatigue is also a symptom I live with constantly.

I wonder if this is why this type of cancer is so deadly? By the time people realize that there is something wrong other than a malfunctioning thyroid, it might be too late. Many of us with thyroid problems live with these symptoms for years, so how could we notice?

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