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What is anaplastic thyroid cancer

Posted Feb 03 2013 1:56pm

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a very rare form of thyroid cancer, which is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer and unfortunately is often lethal.  This type of cancer, also known as undifferentiated thyroid cancer, thankfully is the case in only 1-2% of all cases of thyroid cancer.  It usually develops in older people, over the age of 60, and is found more often in women.  The known risks for developing anaplastic thyroid cancer are: thyroid enlargement (goiter) or exposure to radiation of the upper body.   This rare but aggressive type of thyroid cancer has a very low 5-year survival rate of only about 5% of those diagnosed. The average survival rate is 5 months following the diagnosis.  Anaplastic thyroid cancer unlike the other types of thyroid cancers has some telltale symptoms, because of its rapid growth. The cancer quickly begins compressing the neighboring organs and the person affected may feel difficulty breathing or swallowing.  The rapidly growing tumor becomes visible and tangible as a large mass.   With the rapid growth of the anaplastic thyroid cancer, the person affected often gets a hoarse voice and has swollen lymph nodes on the neck.  Other common symptoms include: coughing or coughing up blood and loud breathing.

Complications and treatment of anaplastic thyroid cancer

Unfortunately, often the anaplastic thyroid cancer quickly invades the trachea, vocal cords, esophagus and the nearby blood vessels, muscles and also the chest and its organs. This is the main reason that in many cases the complete surgical removal of the tumor is impossible, and the cancer becomes untreatable.  Of course, if diagnosed at an early stage, the cancer can be treated and the patient can make a full recovery, which once again makes early diagnosis so important.  Usually, treatment of this type of cancer includes a combination between radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Often a tracheotomy or gastrostomy is performed to help the patient breath and eat.
The diagnosis is usually done by a physical exam of the neck region, a CT or MRI scan, a laryngoscopic examination, a thyroid scan or a biopsy.
Only about 300 people in the US are diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer every year, which is why so little research and funding for research for this rare but deadly cancer is available.  In many cases, Doctors haven’t even seen a case of this type of thyroid cancer, which makes it even harder to detect.

There is some ongoing research, which gives hope to those diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer.  A treatment with a combination of Votrient ( pazopanib ) and Taxol ( paclitaxel ) drugs has been showing great results in slowing down this aggressive form of thyroid cancer, according to a study done by the Mayo Clinic and published in the Science Translational Medicine journal.  The first of the drugs is a kinase-inhibitor, which has shown to hinder the growth of new cancer cells in renal cancers, and the latter is a drug for chemotherapy.  Both are FDA approved, and tests involving the combination of the two has already began on patients with anaplastic thyroid surgery.  The initial results showed a shrinking of the tumor mass in one patient who had a metastatic form of this aggressive tumor, which lasted over 6 months.

With the ongoing research and new medications being introduced, hopes are that an appropriate therapy will soon be found to treat patients with anaplastic thyroid cancer.  Until then, people should be aware of the symptoms of this rare but deadly cancer, and seek medical advice if they notice any sort of neck mass or other of the common symptoms of anaplastic thyroid cancer, in order to get a diagnosis in time, and increase the chance of slowing it down and improving their chances of survival.

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