Treatments for anaplastic thyroid cancer

Last medical review:

You may be offered the following treatments for anaplastic thyroid cancer (anaplastic carcinoma). Your healthcare team will suggest treatments based on your needs and work with you to develop a treatment plan.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is often advanced when it is diagnosed. This means that it might not be possible to completely remove or destroy all of the cancer.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. It is usually offered for anaplastic thyroid cancer. External radiation therapy is given to the thyroid and neck to help slow down and control the growth of the cancer. It is sometimes given during the same time period as chemotherapy (called chemoradiation).

A standard radiation schedule gives radiation once a day. Smaller doses of radiation therapy may be given 2 times a day. This is called hyperfractionation. A standard radiation schedule may be used if there are too many side effects with hyperfractionation.

Find out more about radiation therapy for thyroid cancer.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. It may be given alone or with radiation therapy as a part of chemoradiation. The chemotherapy combination used most often is doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cisplatin. Sometimes doxorubicin is used alone. Paclitaxel or docetaxel may also be used for some cases.

Find out more about chemotherapy for thyroid cancer.

Targeted therapy

The targeted therapy drugs used for anaplastic thyroid cancer are sorafenib (Nexavar) and lenvatinib (Lenvima). They are given as a pill.

Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (such as proteins) on cancer cells or inside them to stop the growth and spread of cancer. You may be offered targeted therapy to treat anaplastic thyroid cancer that has certain genetic changes. Targeted therapy drugs that may be used include:

  • dabrafenib (Tafinlar) and trametinib (Mekinist) for BRAF gene changes
  • selpercatinib (Retevmo) for RET gene changes
  • larotrectinib (Vitrakvi) or entrectinib (Rozlytrek) for NTRK gene changes

Find out more about targeted therapy for thyroid cancer.

Surgery

Surgery is rarely offered for anaplastic thyroid cancer. This cancer is often advanced when it is diagnosed, and it usually can't be removed with surgery (it is unresectable). But surgery may be done to relieve symptoms, or it may be offered before or after other treatments in certain cases. The type of surgery done depends on the stage of the cancer, the size of the tumour and what structures and organs the cancer has grown into or spread to.

Find out more about surgery for thyroid cancer.

If you can’t have or don’t want cancer treatment

You may want to consider a type of care to make you feel better rather than treat the cancer itself. This may be because the cancer treatments don't work anymore, they're not likely to improve your condition or they may cause side effects that are hard to cope with. There may also be other reasons why you can't have or don't want cancer treatment.

Talk to your healthcare team. They can help you choose care and treatment for advanced cancer.

Clinical trials

Talk to your doctor about clinical trials open to people with thyroid cancer in Canada. Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, find and treat cancer. Find out more about clinical trials.

Expert review and references

  • Shereen Ezzat, MD, FRCPC, FACP
  • Bible KC, Kebebebew E, Brierley J, Brito JP, Cabanillas ME et al . 2021 American Thyroid Association guidelines for management of patients with anaplastic thryoid cancer . Thyroid . 2021 : 31(3): 337–386 .
  • American Cancer Society. Treating Thyroid Cancer . 2021: https://www.cancer.org/.
  • HealthLinkBC. Thyroid Cancer. 2019: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/.
  • Alberta Health Services. Thyroid Cancer Treatment in Alberta. Edmonton: 2019: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/.
  • Sharma PK. Medscape Reference: Thyroid Cancer. WebMD LLC; 2021: https://www.medscape.com/.
  • Alberta Health Services. MyHealth Alberta.ca: Thyroid Cancer. Government of Alberta; https://myhealth.alberta.ca/.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Thyroid Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) – Health Professional Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2021: https://www.cancer.gov/.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Cancer.net: Thyroid Cancer. 2021: https://www.cancer.net/.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Guidelines for Patients: Thyroid Cancer. 2020.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Thyroid Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) – Patient Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2021: https://www.cancer.gov/.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network . NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Thyroid Carcinoma (Version 3.2021) . 2021 .
  • Kotwal A, Davidge-Pitts CJ, Thompson GB. Thyroid Tumors. DeVita VT Jr., Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2019: 81:1326–1337.