Thymus Cancer

What Is Thymus Cancer?

Thymus cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells reproduce rapidly and begin interfering with the thymus’ normal operation. Located in the upper chest, the thymus is part of the body’s lymphatic system. There are two primary forms of thymus cancer, both of which originate in the epithelial or lining cells of the organ. The first, thymoma, is a slow-to-develop tumor that usually remains local. The second, thymic carcinoma, is more aggressive, growing faster and often spreading through the body by means of the lymphatic system.

Thymus cancer is relatively rare, with about 400 new cases diagnosed each year. Nevertheless, if left unchecked, it can pose a serious health threat. The outlook of someone with this disease will depend on a variety of factors, including age, overall health condition, the type of cancer involved, its stage of development, and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). If you or a loved one is exhibiting thymus-cancer symptoms, the oncologists and other caring professionals at Baptist Health can help.

What Are Thymus Cancer Symptoms?

Thymus cancers are marked by the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain.
  • Chronic and sometimes bloody coughing.
  • Labored breathing.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

Some thymus cancers have secondary effects. One of these is superior vena cava syndrome, which occurs when a thymic tumor impinges on a major blood vessel between the heart and head. Another is a group of autoimmune disorders, in which the body’s infection-defense systems begin attacking the body itself. One of the most common of these disorders is myasthenia gravis, which is a neurological condition affecting voluntary muscle control.

What Causes Thymus Cancer?

Medical researchers have yet to determine the cause or causes of thymus cancer. The disease is most prevalent in the elderly and in persons with an Asian or Pacific Island heritage.

How Is Thymus Cancer Diagnosed?

Thymus cancer is diagnosed in the following manner:

  • Physical exam: Your doctor will look you over for evidence of a cancerous growth. He or she will document your symptoms and ask questions about your medical history.
  • Medical imaging: Chest x-rays, CT scans, PET scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are the most common means of diagnosing thymus cancer.
  • Blood test: The blood test will measure a variety of factors present in the blood, including red cells, white cells, platelets, hemoglobin, and other compositional elements. Amounts that are outside of normal parameters are often signals of an underlying medical issue. 
  • Biopsy: To verify a diagnosis of cancer, your physician may conduct a biopsy. He or she will collect a sample of the thymus, either by inserting a needle through your chest wall or as part of a surgical procedure. This sample will be analyzed for evidence of disease.

If you’ve developed thymus cancer, your physician or oncologist will assess its stage of development. He or she will determine the size and disposition of your tumors and the overall prevalence of cancer within your body. Cancer stages are generally rated from 0 to 4, with stage 4 being the most advanced version of the disease.

How Is Thymus Cancer Treated?

Treatment for thymus cancer depends on a number of factors, including the specific disease involved, your age, the cancer’s stage of development, and where it is present in the body:

  • Surgery: Excising a tumor by surgery is the most common form of treatment for thymus cancer. The entire organ is often removed; the medical term for this is a thymectomy. Surgery is sometimes combined with other forms of cancer treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy: Oncologists use radiation therapy to kill cancer cells in a specific area.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is an effective means of killing cancer cells that have spread from their place of origin.
  • Hormone therapy: Some cancers feed on hormones, using them as a kind of fuel. Hormone therapies are designed to reduce or eliminate contact between the hormones and thymus-cancer cells. They do this by blocking cell receptors from attaching to the hormones. 
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted-therapy drugs exploit specific mutations associated with some cancer cells to stop their growth, reproduction, and spread. In this way they operate differently than chemotherapy drugs, by bottling up cancer rather than simply destroying it. Targeted-therapy drugs are sometimes utilized along with chemotherapy.
  • Clinical trials: Clinical trials are experimental treatments for cancer that are undergoing testing for approval from the Food & Drug Administration. By participating in a clinical trial, you might benefit from an innovative new treatment that would be otherwise unavailable to you, but you also run the risk of encountering unknown and possibly serious side effects.

Treatment may also involve antibiotics, to maintain patient health while the immune system is depleted, and various medications for suppressing the side effects of cancer treatments.

Success depends on a number of factors, including how early or how late the cancer was diagnosed. In general, the earlier the detection, the greater the chance of beating the disease. Individuals who are treated for thymus cancer require monitoring for a possible recurrence.

How Is Thymus Cancer Prevented?

There is no known means of preventing thymus cancer. Until its cause or causes have been identified, this is unlikely to change.

Learn More About Thymus Cancer from Baptist Health

Thymus cancers are potentially fatal, especially if diagnosed in a later stage of development. The oncologists and other medical experts at Baptist Health are part of your frontline defense against thymus cancer.

Next Steps with MyChart

Discover MyChart, a free patient portal that combines your Baptist Health medical records into one location. Schedule appointments, review lab results, financials, and more! If you have questions, give us a call.