The thymus is situated under the breastbone, in front of and above the heart. The thymus produces white blood cells at infancy and through childhood, and gradually shrinks in size as the body ages. Eventually the thymus is replaced with fatty tissue. Thymus cancer, sometimes called thymoma, is very rare, but spreads quickly and generally has a poor prognosis.
Thymus Cancer Signs & Symptoms
Patients with existing autoimmune conditions, such as myasthenia gravis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, are at a higher risk of developing thymus cancer.This form of the disease does not always present symptoms, but if the following symptoms appear and last for more than 2 weeks, seek medical attention immediately:
- Chronic cough
- Persistent chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Thymus cancer is often detected by a standard chest x-ray.
Thymus Cancer Diagnosis
Doctors use a variety of tests to detect and diagnose thymus cancer:
- Physical exam: A doctor will conduct a thorough physical exam that can detect abnormalities.
- CT (CAT) scan: A CAT scan takes photos of the internal organs from different angles and can show any abnormalities.
- MRI: An MRI uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to take detailed photos of the body’s internal organs.
- PET scan: In this procedure, a small amount of radioactive glucose is inserted into the bloodstream.The PET scanner searches the body and takes a picture of where the glucose is being used. A malignant mass will stand out because it is more active and uses more glucose than healthy cells.
Cutting away a small piece of tissue and examining it under a microscope (biopsy) will definitively diagnose thymus cancer.
Thymus Cancer Treatment
Malignant masses may be surgically removed, or sometimes used in conjunction with radiation therapy If the mass cannot be removed surgically, any of the following procedures may be used:
- Chemotherapy with or without surgery to remove part of the mass, followed by radiation
- Chemotherapy and radiation
- One of the most recent clinical trials (either medication or form of radiation therapy) available
Thymus Cancer Outlook
Patients’ prognosis depends on the location, stage, and size of the mass. It is difficult to determine an accurate survival rate because of the rare nature of the disease. Patients who are diagnosed and treated early can anticipate a 5-year survival rate of approximately 88% (if the mass has not metastasized). Patients whose mass has spread somewhat have a 74% survival rate; late-stage or “distant” patients can anticipate a survival rate of approximately 41%. These rates can vary widely from patient to patient.