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(Thymic Cancer)

Definition

Thymus cancer is when there are cancer cells on the thymus. The thymus is an organ in your chest that makes a type of white blood cell that protects you from infections. It is active until you reach puberty. This type of cancer is not common.


Causes

Cancer happens when cells in the body split without order. In most people, cells split in an orderly way. If they keep splitting when you don’t need new cells, then a tumor can form. Cancer means growths that can spread to nearby tissues and other parts of the body.


It isn’t clear what causes this to happen. It is likely a mix of your genes and environment.


Risk Factors

This cancer is more common in older adults. It is also more common in people with Asian or Pacific Island backgrounds. Black people are also at higher risk.


There aren’t any specific risk factors for this type of cancer.


Symptoms

Some people may not have symptoms if the cancer is in its early stages. People who do have symptoms may have:

  • Problems breathing
  • A cough with or without blood
  • Chest pain
  • Problems swallowing
  • Lack of hunger
  • Weight loss

Tumors can press on the vessel that brings blood from the head to the heart. This may cause you to have:

  • Swelling of the upper body
  • Bluish skin color
  • Headaches
  • Lightheadedness

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.


Your blood may be tested.


Images may be taken of your chest. This can be done with:

  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan

Your exam, history, and tests will be used to find out the stage of your cancer. Staging helps guide the care you will need. This cancer is staged from 1 to 4. Stage 1 is cancer that has stayed in the thymus. Stage 4 is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.


Treatment

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. It will depend on the stage of your cancer. Choices are:


SurgerySurgery may be done to remove the thymus gland. Other nearby structures may also need to be removed.


Radiation Therapy This is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It is often used with surgery to remove any cancer that was left behind. People who can’t have surgery may also be treated with this. It can also ease problems in people with severe cancer.


External radiation therapy will be used. It is aimed at the tumor from a place outside the body.


Chemotherapy This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given as an injection, through a tube, or by mouth. The drugs enter the blood and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. It may be given with radiation therapy to help it work better.


Prevention

There are no known ways to prevent thymus cancer. The cause is not known.


RESOURCES

CANADIAN RESOURCES

References

Ifosfamide. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/drug-monograph/ifosfamide . Accessed March 23, 2020.

Thymus cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at:  https://www.cancer.org/cancer/thymus-cancer.html . Accessed January 15, 2019.

Thymoma and thymic carcinoma—patient version. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:  https://www.cancer.gov/types/thymoma . Accessed January 15, 2019.