Thymus Cancers

Thymoma and thymic carcinoma are thymus cancer. They form on the outside surface of the thymus. The thymus, a small organ that lies in the upper chest under the breastbone, is part of the lymphatic system. It makes white blood cells, called lymphocytes. These cells protect the body against infection.

The tumor cells in a thymoma look similar to the normal cells of the thymus. They grow slowly and rarely spread beyond the thymus.

On the other hand, the tumor cells in a thymic carcinoma look very different from normal thymus cells. They grow and spread quickly. Thymic carcinoma is more difficult to treat than thymoma.

Autoimmunity & Thymus Cancer

People with thymus cancer often have autoimmune diseases as well. These diseases cause the immune system to attack healthy tissue and organs. They include:

  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Acquired pure red cell aplasia
  • Hypogammaglobulinemia
  • Polymyositis
  • Lupus erythematosus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Thyroiditis
  • Sjögren syndrome

Finding Thymoma

Sometimes thymoma and thymic carcinoma don't cause symptoms. Sometimes they'll cause:

  • A cough that doesn't go away
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing

We often find these cancers during a routine chest X-ray. We can also diagnose them with:

  • Physical exam and history
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan (CAT scan)
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan)


We treat these cancers with:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.