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Thymus Cancer - Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Thymus cancer is a tumor of the thymus gland located in the upper part of the chest. Read the below article to learn about the how and why of thymus cancer.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published At August 12, 2022
Reviewed AtSeptember 14, 2023

Introduction:

Cancer is a disease in which a few of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably, forming lumps and spreading to different body parts. The cells that divide may remain in the same area called benign (harmless) tumors or can invade the surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of the body, called metastatic carcinomas. Thymus cancer is a tumor that occurs in the thymus gland.

What Is a Thymus Gland?

The thymus gland is located beneath the breast bone in the chest. It is an important organ that aids in developing immunity in the body. The thymus gland produces special cells called white blood cells (lymphocytes) that help the body fight against infection-causing bacteria and viruses. It is very active in childhood and starts to shrink in size by the age of puberty (10 to 14 years in girls and 12 to 16 years in boys). As age advances, the thymus gland gets replaced by fat tissue.

What Are the Types of Thymus Cancer?

Thymus cancer is of two types, namely:

Thymoma:

Thymoma is the more common form of thymus cancer diagnosed in people between the ages of 40 to 60. Most cases of thymomas grow very slowly and do not spread to other body parts. However, few of them may spread within the chest. People with thymoma can also develop some autoimmune diseases (a condition where the body destroys its cells) like myasthenia gravis (a disorder that causes weakness of skeletal muscles) and rheumatoid arthritis (a long-standing disease with painful joints that are swollen and stiff).

Thymic Carcinoma:

Thymic carcinoma can develop in people of any age group and tends to grow quickly and spread to other body parts. It is an aggressive type that is more difficult to treat when compared to thymoma. Thymic carcinoma is also called type C thymoma.

Who Is at an Increased Risk for Thymus Cancer?

The following factors are considered to increase the risk of developing thymus cancer. They include:

  1. Old age.

  2. Being a Pacific islander or an Asian American.

What Are the Causes of Thymus Cancer?

The exact cause of thymus cancer is not known. However, a rare, inherited disorder called multiple endocrine neoplasias (MEN) is associated with an increased risk of different cancers, including thymus cancer.

Thymomas are often linked to certain autoimmune conditions like:

  • Myasthenia Gravis: Myasthenia gravis develops in about half of the people with thymomas. It is associated with weak and tired muscles. People diagnosed with myasthenia gravis require a CT (computerized tomography) scan to check for thymus cancer.

  • Pure Red Cell Aplasia: Pure red cell aplasia is a rare condition affecting the bone marrow. Bone marrow contains special cells that are involved in the formation of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. The condition causes a decrease in the red blood cells that carry oxygen to different body parts. The affected person can become tired and breathless.

  • Hypoglobulinemia: It is a condition in which the body has very low levels of antibodies that help fight infections. The affected person is more likely to get infections that fail to heal fast.

What Are the Symptoms of Thymus Cancer?

Thymus cancer does not cause symptoms in most people. However, symptoms are noted when the tumor grows large enough to cause pressure on the nearby organs or blood vessels. The following symptoms may occur, which include:

  • Severe cough that gets worse with time.

  • Breathlessness.

  • Chest pain.

  • Difficulty in swallowing.

  • Hoarseness of voice.

  • Decreased appetite.

  • Unexplained weight loss.

  • Fatigue.

  • Weakness of muscles.

  • Swelling of the face and arms.

  • Dizziness.

  • Headaches.

  • Double vision (perspective of a single image as two images).

  • Recurrent infections.

  • Anemia (a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin).

How Is Thymus Cancer Diagnosed?

In most cases, thymus cancer is identified when an imaging test for the chest is done for other reasons. The doctor may note down the history and symptoms and conduct a physical examination to check for any swelling or lump. Following basic tests may be advised to confirm the diagnosis, which includes:

  1. Blood tests.

  2. Chest X-ray.

  3. CT (computerized tomography) scan.

Surgery is performed to remove the tumor, and a small specimen of the tumor is sent to the laboratory for further analysis. Lab reports help the doctor know about the stage of cancer. Staging of cancers is classified from stage 1 to stage 4, which helps assess the type of cancer cells, and whether the cells have spread to different body parts.

Other tests that are done to diagnose thymus cancer include:

  • CT - Guided Needle Biopsy: The doctor uses a CT scan to assess the exact area from which the tissue has to be collected for examination. After giving a local anesthetic, a thin needle is inserted into the thymus gland through the skin to collect a small sample of tissue (biopsy). This procedure takes a few minutes.

  • Mediastinoscopy: This test is performed under general anesthesia. The doctor makes a small cut on the skin and passes a thin, long tube with a camera at the end. It helps to view the chest and also collect a sample of thymus tissue for examination.

  • Thoracoscopy: It is similar to mediastinoscopy, in which two small cuts are placed on the skin, and a thin tube is passed into the chest to collect a sample. Sometimes, a video camera is fitted at the end of the tube that gives a better picture of the area. Fluid collected in the chest is drained using a long tube.

Treatment

How Is Thymus Cancer Treated?

The type of treatment for thymus cancer depends on various factors like the symptoms and stage of cancer, whether it is confined or has spread to different body parts. Doctors may advise a single treatment option or a combination of treatments to cure the condition. The three most common approaches to treating thymus cancer include:

  1. Surgery: Surgery is advised to remove the tumor mass that has not spread to different body parts.

  2. Radiation: High-energy X-rays that kill the cancer cells are used in radiation therapy. However, they can also damage the nearby normal cells.

  3. Chemotherapy: Medications, in the form of tablets or injections to destroy the tumor cells that have spread throughout the body, are called chemotherapy. The commonly used drugs for chemotherapy are Cisplatin, Cyclophosphamide, Paclitaxel, and Doxorubicin.

  4. Targeted Therapy: Research is being done on the use of targeted or immunotherapy drugs to control the cancer spread. Targeted therapy drugs interfere with the way cancer cells interact with each other. They also help the body’s immune system recognize and kill the cancer cells.

Conclusion:

The long-term outlook of the condition depends upon various factors like age, the overall health of the patient, the type of cancer, and whether cancer has been completely removed. Post-treatment, regular follow-ups with the doctor are necessary to check for any side effects of the treatment or recurrence of cancer. Support groups and counselors can help patients emotionally to cope with anxiety associated with cancer. Following a healthy, active lifestyle and a good diet are pivotal in the emotional and physical well-being of the patient.

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Pulmonology (Asthma Doctors)

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