A person holding their chest.
Common symptoms of thymoma cancer are chest pain, persistent coughing, and weight loss.

What is Thymoma Cancer?

Thymoma cancer is a rare cancer of the thymus gland, a small organ located in the upper chest. In this article, we explain the signs and symptoms of thymoma cancer and how it is diagnosed and treated. Here’s all you need to know.

Understanding Thymoma Cancer

The thymus gland is a small organ that sits behind the sternum (breastbone) in the upper chest. It is part of the lymphatic system and it is responsible for producing white blood cells called T lymphocytes. These cells play a crucial role in immune function.

There are two primary types of cancer that affect the thymus gland: thymoma and thymic carcinoma. Thymic carcinoma tends to grow and spread more rapidly than thymoma and is also more difficult to treat.

Fortunately, thymic carcinoma only accounts for a small proportion of thymus gland tumors, approximately 1 in 5. This article will focus on the more common of the two conditions: thymoma.

It is a disease that affects cells on the outer surface of the thymus gland, and it tends to form between the lungs and the sternum. However, in rare cases, it may also form in the neck.

Although thymoma is less aggressive than thymic carcinoma, it is still critical to receive treatment as quickly as possible. Let’s look at some of the signs and symptoms to watch out for.

Early Signs of Thymoma Cancer

In its early stages, thymoma is usually asymptomatic, meaning it does not cause any symptoms. Therefore, it often goes unnoticed unless it is picked up on a chest x-ray being performed for another reason.

Another possible early sign of thymoma is the presence of an autoimmune condition, especially myasthenia gravis. Approximately 30% to 50% of people with thymoma develop myasthenia gravis, and around 20% of people with myasthenia gravis also have thymoma.

Some common symptoms of myasthenia gravis include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fatigue
  • Double vision

Thymoma may also be associated with other autoimmune disorders. This is because when the immune system attacks the thymoma tumor, it can also damage healthy cells.

Some examples include pure red cell aplasia (a condition that affects red blood cell production), systemic lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis. These diseases can cause a range of symptoms throughout the body. Some of the most common are fatigue, inflammation, and pain.

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Thymoma Cancer Symptoms

In its later stages, thymoma cancer may cause additional symptoms, including:

  • Persistent cough
  • Chest pain
  • Hoarse voice
  • Swollen face, neck, arms, or upper body
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should make an appointment with their physician as soon as possible. As with any cancer, the sooner thymoma is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of recovery.

What Causes Thymoma Cancer?

The exact cause of thymoma cancer is unclear and there are no known risk factors.
What we do know is that the disease tends to occur equally in males and females. It is usually diagnosed between the ages of 40 and 60.

Thymoma Cancer Diagnosis

If a physician suspects thymoma cancer, they will conduct a physical exam and take a detailed medical history. This might include checking the body for lumps and asking about previous illnesses and lifestyle habits.

They may then order a series of tests, including chest x-rays, computerized tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. These help to identify where the tumor is and whether it has spread to other areas of the body.

A biopsy can help to confirm the presence of cancerous cells in the tumor. Small tissue samples are usually taken using a fine needle.

If thymoma is present, it will be designated a stage between 1 and 4, depending on how far it has spread. For example, stage 1 thymoma has not spread beyond the thymus gland. Meanwhile, stage 4 is the most advanced phase, in which cancerous cells have spread to several other organs.

Thymoma Cancer Treatment

Treatment options will depend upon the stage of the thymoma and how far it has spread beyond the thymus gland.

The first-line treatment is usually surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Some thymomas are surrounded by a capsule, making them relatively easy to remove in their entirety. However, others will have begun to spread; in this case, the surgeon may also remove some of the surrounding tissue.

Some people may need radiation therapy or chemotherapy in addition to surgery. Radiation therapy uses powerful x-rays to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy works similarly but uses potent medicines to kill cancer cells and prevent them from spreading.

Unfortunately, these treatments can also damage healthy cells and cause a variety of side effects. They include:

  • Sore skin
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss

Another treatment option is hormone therapy. It uses medication to block the activity of certain hormones that help cancerous cells to grow. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, and headaches. Some common hormone therapy drugs include octreotide and prednisone.

Finally, targeted therapy uses drugs that can identify cancerous cells and destroy them without harming healthy cells. Therefore, they cause less damage than radiation or chemotherapy, although they do have somewhat similar side effects. Some common targeted therapy drugs include sunitinib and lenvatinib.

Researchers are currently investigating alternative thymoma treatments, such as immunotherapy. This involves modifying the immune system to help it recognize and kill cancerous cells. However, this treatment is not yet widely available.