The small organ that is situated just at the back of the breast bone and in front of the mediastinum, the space in the chest, between the lungs, is called thymus. The thymus is positioned in front of and above the heart. Uncontrolled growth of malignant cells in the thymus is known as thymus cancer. The thymus tumor is also called as thymomas.
Most of the times, before you start experiencing symptoms of thymus cancer, the disease is diagnosed when the x-ray is done for some other purpose.
As the thymus is positioned in the center of the chest, adjacent to some blood vessels and airways, the cancerous tumor may press on other structures. The signs and symptoms caused by thymomas are as follows:
You can feel these symptoms because of some other disease also.
Researchers have not found much information on causes of thymus cancer. It is seen that DNA changes occur in thymus cancer cells but study in this regard is still on. A few reports have suggested that exposure to radiation may be a cause of thymus cancer. But that is not yet confirmed. Till now known causes of thymus cancer are age and ethnicity.
The risk of thymus cancer increases with growing age. This type of disease is hardly seen in children and young adults. But, middle-aged people and those who are in their 70s are more vulnerable to thymus cancer.
Thymus cancer is mostly seen in Asians and Pacific Islanders live in the United States. But it usually doesn’t affect Whites and Latinos. African Americans are more vulnerable to thymus cancer than Whites.
Thymus cancer is diagnosed by following procedures:
Medical history and physical exam
If the doctor suspects that you have thymus cancer then other detailed tests are likely to be done. These tests include:
If the doctor suspects that you have any problem in the middle of the chest, he advises to go for a chest x-ray. In some cases, the thymomas are small and they are not clearly visible in a regular chest x-ray. In that case you may have to take pictures of affected areas through CT scan.
Computed tomography (CT) scan and biopsy
During CT scan detailed cross sectional images of the body are created. The CT scanner takes a number of pictures while rotating around you and the computer produces these pictures in a sequence. The doctor can get clearer picture of the affected area and can find out and study the thymus tumor in a better way. The doctor can also know extent to which the thymomas have been spread.
During CT scan biopsy can also be conducted simultaneously. The biopsy needle is guided during the CT scan. The needle reaches at the suspected area and removes sample to be checked under microscope for cancerous cells.
Before the CT scan procedure, you may have to take an injection or asked to drink one or two pints of a liquid that helps to outline the structures inside the areas to be studied. Do not forget to inform the doctor if you are allergic to this kind of dyes or liquids.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
The MRI scan uses radio waves and strong magnets to produce clear picture of various parts of the body. The patient may be injected a contrast material known as gadolinium into the vein for better visibility. Doctors can see clear and detailed picture of the suspected area to detect thymus cancer. The images also can give information about the spread of cancerous tumor to other areas.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
Before obtaining PET scan images, the patient receives an injection that contains a substance with low amount of radioactivity. The cancerous cells inside the body attract radioactive substance. A special camera then takes pictures of this radioactivity. From PET scan images, the doctor can know whether the tumor is cancerous or not. It is also helpful in detecting the spread of the malignant cells to other areas. Sometimes PET scan and CT scan are conducted simultaneously.
Once the doctor is sure that you are suffering from thymus cancer, he tries to remove the thymus tumor. The removal of thymomas is done by following treatment methods:
The treatment method depends on the type and stage of the disease.
You may have to spend around 10,000 USD towards treatment cost of thymus cancer. This amount includes doctor fee, stay in hospital, food, medication, treatment and nursing. However, the amount may vary from one hospital to other and it also depends on the stage of the cancer and the healthcare system followed by you.
Not much is known about the cause of thymus cancer except age and ethnicity. Hence, it is difficult to mention the preventive measures for this uncommon disease.
Side effects of various treatment methods of thymus cancer or thymomas are mentioned below:
However, all the above side effects are temporary and can be handled carefully as per doctor’s advice.