Thymoma and thymic cancer are rare diseases in which malignant cancer cells form within the thymus gland, a small organ that is part of the lymphatic system and lies in the anterior mediastinum under the breastbone. They occur at a rate of only 1.5 cases for every million people each year in the United States.
The thymus makes infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes. Tumor cells in a thymoma look similar to normal cells of the thymus, grow slowly, and rarely spread beyond the thymus. Thymomas are often cured by surgery or surgery followed by radiation. Tumor cells in a thymic carcinoma, however, look very different from normal thymus cells, grow more quickly, and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. Thymic carcinoma is more difficult to treat than thymoma and can require a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
The specialists at The Lung Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) use the most advanced diagnostic methods and proven treatments for patients with thymoma and thymic cancer, including minimally invasive surgical techniques aided by video and robotic technology. We are the surgical team for Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), an exceptional collaboration between two world-class medical centers.
People with thymoma often have autoimmune diseases which cause the immune system to attack healthy tissue and organs. They include:
Sometimes thymoma and thymic cancer do not cause symptoms and are found during a routine chest X-ray. When tumors in the thymus press on nearby structures they may cause:
Your BWH thoracic surgeon may conduct the following tests and procedures to diagnose thymoma or thymic cancer:
Staging helps in treatment planning by determining where cancer is in the body and how much it has spread from the original site. Staging is determined through tests and procedures.
Options vary depending upon the size and location of the tumor, but surgery is often the recommended treatment for thymoma. In both advanced thymoma and in thymic cancer, surgery may be performed before or after chemotherapy, radiation and clinical trials of chemotherapy and radiation.
Although a traditional surgical approach is still needed for many complex thoracic cases, an increasing number of diagnostic and surgical procedures now can be approached through smaller incisions and by using less invasive techniques aided by video and robotic technology. These procedures have been found to be accurate, efficient, cost-effective, and safe through years of technological development and experience. They are specifically indicated for small tumors which are less than 5 cm or 2 inches in size. Bigger tumors still require open surgery to reduce the risk of spread.
Non-Surgical Cancer Treatments
You will receive a thorough diagnostic examination and receive clinically-proven treatment by a board-certified surgeon with expertise in thymoma and thymic cancer. Our goal is to alleviate or eliminate symptoms so patients can confidently resume everyday activities. Thymic carcinomas commonly recur and thymomas may recur after a long time. There is also an increased risk of having another type of cancer after having a thymoma. For these reasons, lifelong follow-up is needed.
Thymoma and thymic cancer patients benefit from the wide range of specialists at The Lung Center. Brigham and Women’s Hospital provides a multidisciplinary approach to patient care, collaborating with colleagues in other medical specialties. Our DF/BWCC treatment team includes thoracic surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, and pulmonologists. If your thoracic surgeon discovers an underlying illness or concern, you will be referred to a BWH physician for an expert evaluation.
Visit the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center for more information about thoracic cancer.
For over a century, a leader in patient care, medical education and research, with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery.