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Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer (ATC)

What is anaplastic thyroid cancer?

Anaplastic thyroid cancer, or ATC, is a type of thyroid cancer. The thyroid is a gland located in the front of your neck, just below the Adam’s apple. It is responsible for sending out hormones to the rest of your body. ATC is different than other types of thyroid cancers because ATC invades other parts of the body very quickly. This type of cancer usually affects people over the age of 60. ATC can also be called anaplastic thyroid carcinoma.

How common is anaplastic thyroid cancer?

ATC is a rare type of thyroid cancer, making up 1% to 2% of thyroid cancer cases. ATC affects one to two people per one million per year in the US.

How is anaplastic thyroid cancer diagnosed?

ATC can start as a bump in the throat area. The tumor growing on the thyroid can make your voice hoarse by blocking your vocal chords, or it can make it difficult to breathe by blocking your windpipe. Sometimes people can have ATC for a while and not notice it because the tumor remains small.

Imaging: If you have symptoms of ATC, your doctor will use imaging scans such as ultrasound, CT, and MRI to look at the size of the tumor. They will also check for signs that the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.

Biopsy: To check if the tumor is ATC, your doctor will perform a biopsy, taking a small sample from the tumor with a needle. A pathologist will study cells from the sample under the microscope to see what kind of tumor it is.

How is anaplastic thyroid cancer treated?

Surgery: Once ATC is diagnosed, you may have surgery to remove the thyroid. This surgery is a called a thyroidectomy. If a thyroidectomy is not an option, your doctor will discuss other options with you.

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy: A thyroidectomy is often combined with radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Doctors and scientists are looking for ways to improve radiation therapy. For example, new ways to give radiation therapy have been developed that allow higher radiation doses over less time with more precision. The hope is to target the tumor without injuring the healthy nearby muscle and tissue.

ATC is a difficult disease to treat because of its ability to spread to the rest of the body. Research is being conducted on the different types of treatment options, and support networks are available for people with ATC.

Does anaplastic thyroid cancer run in families?

No, ATC does not run in families.

How does anaplastic thyroid cancer form?

Scientists are always working to understand how cancer forms, but it can be hard to prove. ATC often starts in a thyroid that is already unhealthy. It can form within a goiter or it can arise from another thyroid cancer. Scientists have found many different changes in ATC cells, which tells them that there are likely many ways that ATC can start. This makes it very hard to develop a single treatment that can work for all ATC patients.

What is the prognosis for someone with anaplastic thyroid cancer?

The estimate of how a disease will affect you long-term is called prognosis. Every person is different and prognosis will depend on many factors, such as:

  • Where the tumor is in your body
  • If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body
  • How much of the tumor was taken out during surgery

If you want information on your prognosis, it is important to talk to your doctor. NCI also has resources to help you understand cancer prognosis.

Doctors estimate ATC survival rates by how groups of people with ATC have done in the past. Because there are so few ATC patients, these rates may not be very accurate. They also don’t consider newer treatments being developed. ATC is one of the fastest growing cancers, with only half of people with ATC surviving 6 months after diagnosis. It is very important to work with a team of experts as soon as possible after diagnosis to improve your chances of survival. You can contact MyPART for help connecting with experts in ATC.

As scientists learn more about how ATC forms, new treatments will continue to be tested.