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Anaplastic carcinoma is a rare but very deadly form of thyroid cancer that can cause severe breathing difficulties. Symptoms tend to appear suddenly and the cancer can spread to lymph nodes and other body tissue very quickly. Patients have the best chance of survival when their symptoms are recognized, diagnosed, and treated right away. Surgery can be effective if cancer is isolated to the thyroid, but many patients need to receive chemotherapy or radiation to combat a spreading malignancy.
Doctors are unsure what causes anaplastic carcinoma, but several risk factors have been identified. The cancer is most commonly seen in patients over the age of sixty, and women are about three times as likely to develop anaplastic carcinoma as males. People who have iodine deficiencies due to hormonal imbalances or a lack of iodine-rich foods in the diet are at an increased risk of thyroid problems. In addition, patients who have been diagnosed and treated for other more common types of thyroid disorders, such as goiters and follicular cancer, are more likely to develop anaplastic carcinoma.
The first signs of a developing tumor are usually shortness of breath, fatigue, and hoarseness. Within months, a lump in the front of the throat can be seen and felt. As a tumor continues to grow, it can make swallowing very difficult and cause a chronic, painful, bloody cough. The lymph nodes in the neck may start to swell and become tender once the cancer starts to spread.
An oncologist can diagnose anaplastic carcinoma by feeling the neck mass, asking about symptoms, and taking computerized tomography scans of the neck and chest. When a tumor is discovered, a tissue sample is collected by fine needle aspiration. A surgeon inserts a hollow needle into the center of the mass and draws tiny pieces of tissue and fluid into a syringe. Treatment decisions are considered immediately after biopsy results reveal anaplastic carcinoma.
If cancer is isolated to the thyroid, a surgeon may be able to remove the gland and preserve surrounding tissue. In most cases, however, cancer has already spread before surgery can take place. A combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are needed to combat cancer in the lymph nodes and trachea. If cancer reaches the lungs, bones, or brain, it is almost always fatal despite treatment efforts. In general, patients who receive early diagnoses and undergo regular treatments can outlast the average survival rate of six months to one year.