Cancer of the thymus or thymic cancer is an extremely rare form of cancer that starts in the cells of the thymus, a gland that sits behind your breastbone and just above the heart. Its purpose is to produce white blood cells, or T cells, before you're born and during childhood to help fight off infection. There are two main types of thymus cancer, again both very rare: thymoma and thymic carcinoma. With thymoma, the cancer cells look similar to regular cells. This type of cancer is often associated with other diseases, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. With thymic carcinoma, however, the cells multiply quickly and do not look like normal cells at all.

Symptoms of thymus cancer may include:

  • A persistent cough
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss

Because a tumor in the thymus is close to the vena cava (large blood vessel that runs from head to heart) you may also experience swelling of the face, neck or veins, or have headaches or dizziness.

There is not much known about the cause of thymus cancer or why some people develop it and others do not.

If you have symptoms that are concerning you, be sure to see a doctor. Your doctor will review your health history and symptoms, and may recommend certain tests, such as CT scan, MRI, PET scan, blood tests and biopsy.

Diagnosis and treatment of thymus cancer

If you are diagnosed with thymic cancer, your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you and help you decide the best approach for you. Treatment for thymic cancer often includes a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.