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Thymoma and Thymic Carcinoma


What are thymoma and thymic carcinoma?

Thymoma and thymic carcinoma are diseases 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 that travel through the body and fight infection. Thymoma is usually a slow-growing tumor that does not spread beyond the thymus. Thymic carcinoma, however, is difficult to treat and generally spreads to other parts of the body. People with thymoma often have other diseases of the immune system, most commonly myasthenia gravis, a disease in which the muscles become weak.

A doctor should be seen if a person has the following symptoms:

  • A cough that won’t go away.

  • Pain in the chest.

  • Weakness in the muscles.

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 Explanation

Stages of thymoma

Once 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 thymoma:

  • Stage I: Cancer is found only within the thymus gland and the sac that surrounds it.

  • Stage II: Cancer has spread into fat surrounding the thymus or into the lining of the lung cavity.

  • Stage III: Cancer has spread into organs near the thymus, such as the lung, the sac around the heart, and the blood vessels.

  • Stage IVa: Cancer has spread deeper into the sac around the heart or lungs.

  • Stage IVb: Cancer has spread through the vessels carrying blood or lymph.

Stage I thymoma is also called noninvasive thymoma. Stages II through IVb thymoma are also called invasive 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 body.

Treatment Option Overview

How thymoma and thymic carcinoma are treated

There are treatments for all patients with thymoma and thymic carcinoma. 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. A doctor also may take out additional tissue around the cancer.

Radiation therapy uses x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation treatment for thymoma or thymic carcinoma usually comes from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy). Radiation therapy can be used alone, following surgery, or combined with chemotherapy.

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 thymoma and thymic carcinoma 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. To learn more about clinical trials, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

Noninvasive Thymoma and Thymic Carcinoma

Treatment may be one of the following:

  1. Surgery to remove the cancer.

  2. Radiation therapy in rare cases.

Invasive Thymoma and Thymic Carcinoma

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 chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy if the cancer cannot be removed by surgery.

Recurrent Thymoma and Thymic Carcinoma

Treatment may be one of the following:

  1. Surgery to remove the cancer, with or without radiation therapy.

  2. Radiation therapy.

  3. Hormone therapy using steroids.

  4. A clinical trial of chemotherapy.

Changes to This Summary (07/22/2003)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

To Learn More


For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

Web sites and Organizations

The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. There are also many other places where people can get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Local hospitals may have information on local and regional agencies that offer information about finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems associated with cancer treatment.


The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


The NCI's LiveHelp service, a program available on several of the Institute's Web sites, provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.


For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:

  • NCI Public Inquiries Office

  • Suite 3036A

  • 6116 Executive Boulevard, MSC8322

  • Bethesda, MD 20892-8322

About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about new treatments, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard."

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


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