Malignant Thymoma

General Information

What is malignant thymoma?

Malignant thymoma is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the tissues of the thymus. The thymus is a small organ that lies under the breastbone. It makes white blood cells called lymphocytes, which travel through the body and fight infection. People with malignant thymoma often have other diseases of their immune system. The most common disease in people with thymoma is one in which the muscles are weak, called myasthenia gravis.

A doctor should be seen if a person has a cough that won't go away, weakness in the muscles, or pain in the chest.

If there are symptoms, the doctor may take an x-ray of the chest. The doctor may also do a CT scan, a special x-ray that uses a computer to make a picture of part of the body.

The chance of recovery (prognosis) and choice of treatment depend on the stage of the cancer (whether it is just in the thymus or has spread to other places), the types of cells found in the cancer, and the patient's general state of health.

Stage Information

Stages of malignant thymoma:

Once malignant thymoma is found, more tests will be done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This is called staging. A doctor needs to know the stage of the disease to plan treatment. The following staging system may be used for malignant thymoma:

Stage I
cancer found only within the thymus gland and its sac

Stage II
cancer invasion into surrounding fat or lining of lung cavity

Stage III
cancer invasion into organs near the thymus

Stage IVa
greater spread of cancer into sac around heart or lungs

Stage IVb
greater spread of cancer through vessels carrying blood or lymph

Stage I malignant thymoma may be referred to as noninvasive malignant thymoma. Stages II through IVb malignant thymoma may be referred to as invasive malignant thymoma.

Recurrent disease means that the cancer has come back (recurred) after it
has been treated. It may come back in the thymus or in another part of the

Treatment Option Overview

How malignant thymoma is treated:

There are treatments for all patients with malignant thymoma. Three kinds of treatment are used:

-surgery (taking out the cancer in an operation)
-radiation therapy (using high-dose x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells)
-hormone therapy (using hormones to stop cancer cells from growing)

Chemotherapy (using drugs to kill cancer cells) is being studied in clinical trials.

Surgery to remove the tumor is the most common treatment of malignant thymoma. A doctor also may take out lymph nodes or tissue around the cancer.

Radiation therapy uses x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation for thymoma usually comes from a machine outside the body (external beam radiation therapy). Radiation therapy can be used alone or in addition to surgery.

If the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, the patient may be given radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Radiation therapy given after an operation when no cancer cells can be seen is called adjuvant radiation therapy.

Hormone therapy uses hormones to stop cancer cells from growing. Hormones called steroids may be given to stop the tumor from growing.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be taken by pill, or it may be put into the body by a needle in the vein or muscle. Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the drug enters the bloodstream, travels through the body, and can kill cancer cells outside the thymus.

Treatment By Stage

Treatment of malignant thymoma depends on the stage of the disease, and the patient's age and overall condition.

Standard treatment may be considered because of its effectiveness in patients in past studies, or participation in a clinical trial may be considered. Not all patients are cured with standard therapy and some standard treatments may have more side effects than are desired. For these reasons, clinical trials are designed to find better ways to treat cancer patients and are based on the most up-to-date information. Clinical trials are ongoing in many parts of the country for patients with malignant thymoma.

Noninvasive Malignant Thymoma
Treatment may be one of the following:

1. Surgery to remove the cancer.
2. Radiation therapy in rare cases.

Invasive Malignant Thymoma
Treatment may be one of the following:

1. Surgery to remove the cancer followed by adjuvant radiation therapy.
2. Radiation therapy alone, if the cancer cannot be removed by surgery.
3. A clinical trial of chemotherapy.
4. A clinical trial of chemotherapy followed by surgery.
5. A clinical trial of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy if the cancer
cannot be removed by surgery.

Recurrent Malignant Thymoma
Treatment may be one of the following:

1. Surgery to remove the cancer with or without radiation therapy.
2. Radiation therapy.
3. Hormone therapy with steroids.
4. A clinical trial of chemotherapy.

The information on this page was obtained from the National Cancer Institute. The National Cancer Institute provides accurate, up-to-date information on many types of cancer, information on clinical trials, resources for people dealing with cancer, and information for researchers and health professionals.

The National Cancer Institute is in no way affiliated with the Mary Stolfa Cancer Foundation.

The information on this web site is provided for general information only. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are familiar with your individual medical needs. The MSCF disclaims all obligations and liabilities for damages arising from the use or attempted use of the information, including but not limited to direct, indirect, special, and consequential damages, attorneys' and experts' fees and court costs. Any use of the information will be at the risk of the user.

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