Thymoma and Thymic Carcinoma

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Thymoma and thymic carcinoma are diseases in which malignant (cancer) cells 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, that protect the body against infections.

There are different types of tumors of the thymus. Thymomas and thymic carcinomas are rare tumors of the cells that are on the outside surface of the thymus. The tumor cells in a thymoma look similar to the normal cells of the thymus, grow slowly, and rarely spread beyond the thymus. On the other hand, the tumor cells in a thymic carcinoma look very different from the normal cells of the thymus, grow more quickly, and have usually spread to other parts of the body when the cancer is found. Thymic carcinoma is more difficult to treat than thymoma.

Causes

Thymoma is linked with myasthenia gravis and other autoimmune diseases.

Risk

People with thymoma 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

Symptoms

Sometimes thymoma and thymic carcinoma do not cause symptoms. The cancer may be found during a routine chest x-ray. Possible symptoms include:

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

Diagnosis

The following tests and procedures may be used:

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

Treatment

Four types of standard treatment are used:

  • 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.