Thymoma (Cancer of the Thymus)

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See National Cancer Institute information on Thymoma

What is Thymoma?

Thymoma is a disease in which cancerous cells are found in the tissues of the thymus. The thymus is a small gland that lies under the breastbone and is part of the lymph system. It produces white blood cells called lymphocytes, which travel through the body and fight infection.

Rare Tumors

Thymomas and thymic carcinomas are rare tumors of the outside surface of the thymus. Thymoma is a relatively slow-growing cancer and usually does not spread beyond the thymus. However, thymic carcinoma grows faster and typically spreads to other parts of the body. Because of this, thymic carcinoma is often more difficult to treat effectively.

People at Increased Risk of Thymoma

Patients who have myasthenia gravis are at increased risk of getting thymoma.

Symptoms of Thymus Cancer

Patients diagnosed with thymoma often have other diseases, including myasthenia gravis, polymyositis, lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroiditis, Sjogren's syndrome and hypogammaglobulinemia.

Myasthenia Gravis

People with thymoma often have other diseases of their immune system, most commonly myasthenia gravis. Myasthenia gravis is a chronic disorder causing a weakening of the muscles and increased tendency for viral and/or fungal infection. Myasthenia gravis symptoms include muscle weakness because antibodies block the chemical signal connecting the nerve and muscle. Myasthenia gravis treatment may include:

  • Medications - drugs that improve muscle contraction and muscle strength
  • Surgery - thymectomy is the removal of the thymus gland offers relief for some patients
  • Procedures to alter the block and/or immune system response, such as plasmapheresis (removes unwanted substances from the blood) or intravenous immune globulin (therapy that alters the body's immune system response).

Your myasthenia gravis physician specialist will recommend the most effective treatment for you.

Treatment Options for Thymoma

Surgery to remove the tumor is the most common treatment for malignant thymoma. Radiation also may be used alone or in addition to surgery, especially in patients with stage 2 thymoma.

Find a Clinical Trial

Hormone therapy and chemotherapy may be given either on or off a lung cancer clinical trial. In many cases, chemotherapy will be given prior to surgical resection to shrink the tumor.