Thymomas and thymic carcinomas are rare tumors that form in cells on the thymus. Thymomas grow slowly and rarely spread beyond the thymus. Thymic carcinoma grows faster, often spreads to other parts of the body, and is harder to treat. Explore the links on this page to learn more about thymoma and thymic carcinoma treatment and clinical trials.

Thymoma and Thymic Carcinoma Treatment

  • Thymoma and thymic carcinoma are diseases in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the thymus.
  • Thymoma is linked with myasthenia gravis and other autoimmune paraneoplastic diseases.
  • Signs and symptoms of thymoma and thymic carcinoma include a cough and chest pain.
  • Tests that examine the thymus are used to help diagnose and stage thymoma and thymic carcinoma.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Thymoma and thymic carcinoma are diseases in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the thymus.

Thymoma and thymic carcinoma, also called thymic epithelial tumors (TETs), are two types of rare cancers that can form in the cells that cover the outside surface of the thymus. The thymus is a small organ that lies in the upper chest above the heart and under the breastbone. It is part of the lymph system and makes white blood cells, called lymphocytes, that help fight infection. These cancers usually form between the lungs in the front part of the chest and are sometimes found during a chest x-ray that is done for another reason.

Even though thymoma and thymic carcinoma form in the same type of cell, they act differently:

  • Thymoma. The cancer cells look a lot like the normal cells of the thymus, grow slowly, and rarely spread beyond the thymus.
  • Thymic carcinoma. The cancer cells do not look like the normal cells of the thymus, grow more quickly, and are more likely to spread to other parts of the body. About one in every five TETs is a thymic carcinoma. Thymic carcinoma is more difficult to treat than thymoma.

Other types of tumors, such as lymphoma or germ cell tumors, may form in the thymus, but they are not considered to be thymoma or thymic carcinoma.

For information on thymoma and thymic carcinoma in children, see the PDQ summary on Childhood Thymoma and Thymic Carcinoma Treatment.

Signs and symptoms of thymoma and thymic carcinoma include a cough and chest pain.

Most patients do not have signs or symptoms when first diagnosed with thymoma or thymic carcinoma. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • A hoarse voice.
  • Swelling in the face, neck, upper body, or arms.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

The following stages are used for thymoma:

Stage I

In stage I, cancer is found only within the thymus. All cancer cells are inside the capsule (sac) that surrounds the thymus.

Stage II

In stage II, cancer has spread through the capsule and into the fat around the thymus or into the lining of the chest cavity.

Stage III

In stage III, cancer has spread to nearby organs in the chest, including the lung, the sac around the heart, or large blood vessels that carry blood to the heart.

Stage IV

Stage IV is divided into stage IVA and stage IVB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • In stage IVA, cancer has spread widely around the lungs or heart.
  • In stage IVB, cancer has spread to the blood or lymph system.

There are different types of treatment for patients with thymoma and thymic carcinoma.Five types of standard treatment are used:

    • Surgery
    • Radiation therapy
    • Chemotherapy
    • Hormone therapy
    • Targeted therapy

What is Cancer?

  • Cancer can start almost anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, human cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

  • Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the risk of getting cancer. This can include maintaining a healthy lifestyle, avoiding exposure to known cancer-causing substances, and taking medicines or vaccines that can prevent cancer from developing.

  • Cancer can cause many different symptoms. Most often these symptoms are not caused by cancer, but by benign tumors or other problems. If you have symptoms that last for a couple of weeks, your doctor will do a physical exam and order tests or other procedures to find out what is causing your symptoms.