Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer Symptoms and Prognosis

Older man feeling his throat
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Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that affects the thyroid gland. The thyroid, the bow-tie shaped endocrine gland located in the neck below the Adam's apple area, regulates metabolism and cellular use of energy.

Anaplastic cancer makes up only a small percentage—estimates range from 1 to 5 percent—of all thyroid cancers in the U.S. each year. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 23,600 new cases of thyroid cancer in the U.S. Of these, 17,640 will be in women, and 5,960 in men. According to the Thyroid Cancer Survivor's Association, thyroid cancer is one of the few cancers that becoming more common in the past several years, with a growth rate of 3 percent per 100,000 people each year.

Signs and Symptoms

Anaplastic thyroid cancer typically is diagnosed due to a large lump in the gland. It grows rapidly, and can quickly infiltrate the trachea/windpipe, making breathing difficult. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is also one of the only types of thyroid cancer that can rapidly metastasize to other areas of the body. Anaplastic thyroid cancer mostly affects patients over the age of 65 and, unlike other forms of thyroid cancer, it occurs most often in men.

The symptoms of anaplastic cancer include:

  • A mass in the neck (thyroid area), often rapidly enlarged
  • Hoarseness or a change in the voice
  • Cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing


Typically, anaplastic cancer is treated with surgery to remove the tumor, followed by radiation to the tumor. Often, however, anaplastic thyroid tumors have become attached to vital structures within the neck, or have infiltrated the trachea, making them inoperable.

When an anaplastic tumor has infiltrated the windpipe, surgery may be needed to insert a tube in the throat to ease breathing—tracheotomy. In some cases chemotherapy is used to treat metastatic disease, however, anaplastic tumors themselves are typically not responsive to chemotherapy.


Unfortunately, the prognosis for anaplastic cancer is very poor, and less than 5 percent of patients survive 5 years. An estimated 10 percent of patients are alive at 3 years Most people do not survive longer than 6 months, and 80 percent do not survive beyond a year.

Anaplastic cancers typically metastasize into the trachea, lymph nodes, and the lungs and bone. In as many as 25 percent of patients, there is tracheal infiltration which can compromise breathing at initial diagnosis of the condition. Spread of anaplastic cancer to the lungs has already occurred in as many as 50 percent of patients at the time they are diagnosed.

In a January 2003 article on anaplastic thyroid cancer in Current Opinions on Oncology, Dr. J. L. Pasieska reported that the overall median survival is limited to months. In most patients, complete surgical resection is not possible, and almost half the patients seek treatment with distant metastases, with as many as 75 percent developing distant disease during their illness.

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Article Sources
  • Pasieska, JL, "Anaplastic thyroid cancer.," Curr Opin Oncol. 2003 Jan;15(1):78-83.