Thymus Cancer




The thymus is a small organ located in the upper front portion of the chest, extending from the base of the throat to the front of the heart. During fetal development and childhood, the thymus is involved in the production and maturation of T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps the immune system protect the body from viruses, fungi, and other types of infections.

Cancer of the thymus is extremely rare. Only 500 to 700 men and women in the United States are diagnosed with the cancer each year. There are several types of thymus cancer: thymomas, thymic carcinomas, and thymic carcinoid tumors.

Even though cancer of the thymus is rare, physicians at The Cancer Center are skilled in diagnosing, treating, and managing the disease. Our services include:

  • board-certified thoracic surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists who are highly skilled in the use of state-of-the-art technology and surgical techniques to treat cancer of the thymus
  • diagnostic testing and imaging studies
  • clinical trials to investigate new medications and treatment methods
  • a full range of support services


Diagnostic Services

Your physician may use a combination of different methods to diagnose thymus cancer. The Cancer Center offers the following:
  • chest X-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • mediastinoscopy to view the base of the throat and remove a tissue sample for biopsy
  • bronchoscopy to view the bronchi in the lungs
  • needle biopsy


Risk Factors

No specific inherited, environmental, or lifestyle risk factors have been identified for the development of cancer of the thymus. Some studies have suggested a possible association with a previous exposure to radiation to the upper chest area. There have been some rare instances of thymomas (tumors of the thymus) occurring in families. Men and women have the same likelihood of developing the disease. The majority of patients are between the ages of 50 and 80 when they are diagnosed.


Symptoms of cancer of the thymus include:
  • shortness of breath (due to a tumor compressing nearby air passages or blood vessels)
  • severe facial swelling (from compression of nearby veins)
  • tumor-related conditions such as myasthenia gravis, red cell aplasia, and hypogammaglobulinemia


Treatment Services

Surgery is usually the primary treatment for cancer of the thymus. The surgery is performed by a thoracic surgeon through a median sternotomy incision that splits the breast bone (sternum). The surgeon removes the thymus gland and surrounding tissue to complete the surgery. Radiation therapy may be used as an adjuvant (additional) treatment to kill remaining cancerous cells in patients with stage I or II cancers or to shrink tumors before surgery. Radiation therapy is used in almost all cases of stage III and IV cancers. Chemotherapy may be used as an adjuvant before surgery to shrink the tumor or after to kill any remaining cancerous cells.