Anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid

Alternative names
Anaplastic thyroid cancer

Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma is an aggressive form of cancer of the thyroid gland.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Anaplastic thyroid cancer grows very rapidly and is an invasive type of thyroid cancer. It occurs most often in people over age 60. The cause is unknown. Thyroid function tests are usually normal. Anaplastic cancer accounts for only about 1% of all thyroid cancers and is a very rare disease.


  • Lower neck mass, often noted to be enlarging  
  • Hoarseness or changing voice  
  • Cough  
  • Coughing up blood  
  • Difficulty swallowing  
  • Loud breathing

Signs and tests
A physical examination may show a neck mass.

  • A thyroid biopsy shows anaplastic carcinoma  
  • An isotope study of the thyroid (thyroid scan) shows this mass to be “cold”, meaning it does not absorb the isotope.  
  • A CT scan or MRI may show a tumor growing from the thyroid gland.  
  • An examination of the airway with a fiberoptic scope (laryngoscopy) may show a paralyzed vocal cord.

This type of cancer is treated with surgery to remove the tumor, or radiation therapy, or both. Surgery may require placement of a tube in the throat to help breathing (tracheostomy). This tumor is not responsive to radioactive iodine, which is used to treat other types of thyroid cancer. It is also usually not responsive to Chemotherapy.

Support Groups
The stress of illness can often be eased by joining a support group of people sharing common experiences and problems.

Expectations (prognosis)

The prognosis of this disease is poor. Less than 5% of patients survive 5 years. Most people do not survive longer than 6 months.


  • Spread of tumor within the neck  
  • Metastasis (spread) of cancer to other body tissues or organs

Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if there is a persistent lump or mass in the neck, hoarseness, changing voice, cough or coughing up blood.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Martin A. Harms, M.D.

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