Anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC) is the least common, but most deadly, of the four types of thyroid cancer. ATC is very aggressive; it only accounts for less than 2 percent of all thyroid cancer cases in the United States, but it is responsible for 40 percent of deaths caused by the disease. This alarming number is partly caused by late anaplastic thyroid cancer detection. Because ATC has a rapid course and spreads quite early, the disease is typically discovered after it has already spread to other body parts such as the brain, bones, or lungs — at which point, unfortunately, there is nothing much surgery can do to improve the patient’s prognosis.
The rapid progression of ATC is one of the many reasons why thyroid disorders and growths need immediate medical attention, even if the vast majority of thyroid issues are benign or very slow-spreading. The possibility of detecting and treating anaplastic thyroid cancer at its early stages greatly improves the patient’s chances of surviving the disease.
While the exact causes of anaplastic thyroid cancer are still being investigated, the following factors may raise a person’s risk for this disease:
Women are three times more likely to develop anaplastic thyroid cancer than men.
Anaplastic thyroid cancer is usually discovered in patients aged 60 years and older.
People with a history of radiation exposure to the neck and chest are more at risk of developing anaplastic thyroid cancer.
Individuals with long-standing swelling of the neck due to an enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) are also more at risk of developing this disease.
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Anaplastic thyroid cancer may exhibit the following symptoms:
Rapidly growing lump in the lower neck
Difficulty in swallowing or breathing due to the lump
Cough, sometimes with blood
Hoarseness or voice change
In 90 percent of patients diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer for the first time, the cancer is found to have already spread to the lymph nodes of the neck. It is also very common to find that the cancer has spread to the lungs or bones at this point.
In other types of thyroid cancer, a thyroidectomy is performed as a primary form of treatment. However, as mentioned earlier, there is little surgery can do to treat the patient once ATC is discovered at a stage where it has metastasized or spread to other organs. Of all the treatments for thyroid cancer, only radioactive iodine therapy and chemotherapy show significant progress in treating anaplastic thyroid cancer.
Treatment for late stage ATC is mostly to relieve pain. If the tumor is starting to make it difficult for the patient to breathe or eat, the doctor can place a hole in the throat (tracheostomy) or the stomach (gastrostomy). Some patients with ATC may also find it suitable to enroll in clinical trials of new thyroid cancer treatments.
Remember that prompt action can improve your chances of getting a good prognosis, especially when it comes to anaplastic thyroid cancer. Never hesitate to talk to your doctor for any unusual lumps on the neck area at the soonest time possible.