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Man with shortness of breath speaking to nurse

Thymoma is a type of cancer that develops in the thymus, which is an organ located between the lungs. The thymus is part of the lymphatic and immune systems, and its function is to develop T-cells (white blood cells) that are transported to different lymph nodes throughout the body to help the immune system fight infection. The thymus is typically active only until puberty, as it produces all of the T-cells the body needs before birth and during childhood. After that, it slowly begins to shrink and becomes replaced by fat. Thymoma occurs when cancerous cells form on the outside surface of the thymus. It is a rare form of cancer that grows slowly and seldom spreads beyond the thymus.

Signs of thymoma

Thymoma symptoms vary from one person to the next. Some patients never notice anything out of the ordinary while others may experience a number of symptoms, such as exhaustion, chest pain and difficulty breathing.  Because thymomas develop in the chest (behind the sternum), many of the symptoms involve the respiratory system. Symptoms include:

  • A persistent, dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dull or aching pain in the chest
  • Muscle weakness
  • Double vision
  • Anemia
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swelling in the face, neck and upper chest (may be accompanied by a bluish tinge) 

Loss of appetite, headache and unusual weight loss are also common symptoms of thymoma.

Are frequent infections a symptom of thymoma?

Because thymomas often weaken a person’s immune system, frequent infections may be a symptom. Recurrent infections can be indicative of many different conditions, though, so imaging scans and lab tests are often necessary to determine if cancer is the cause. It’s much more likely that a less serious condition, such as a chest cold or pneumonia, is the reason behind these infections. 

Can thymoma cause autoimmune disorders?

For some patients, thymoma can lead to autoimmune disorders, the most common one being myasthenia gravis. This disorder causes weakness to muscles under voluntary control, due to antibodies destroying the communication system between nerves and muscles. Red cell aplasia (a rare form of anemia) and hypogammaglobulinemia (a disorder in which the immune system cannot make enough antibodies) are also autoimmune conditions that can develop due to this cancer.

Finding a thymoma specialist

A general physician is often the first clinician to see if you are worried that you may have thymoma. He or she can learn about the symptoms you’re experiencing and conduct a physical exam. If your physician believes that diagnostic testing is warranted, he or she will likely refer you to a medical oncologist for diagnosis. Because thymoma is hard to diagnose and such a rare disease, it’s useful to consult with an oncologist who specializes in thoracic cancer. At Moffitt Cancer Center, our Thoracic Oncology Program features a wide range of thoracic specialists, several of whom focus exclusively on thymoma patients

Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to thymoma treatment

At Moffitt Cancer Center, our oncologists are highly familiar with the warning signs of thymoma. Due to our expertise and advanced diagnostic technologies, we can quickly and correctly diagnose the underlying cause of a patient’s symptoms. Commonly, our specialists use chest X-rays, computer tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans to diagnose thymoma. 

If the symptoms are the result of a thymoma, our team can make an individualized recommendation for treatment based on the size, stage and location of the patient’s tumor. Treatment typically involves surgery to remove the tumor. Chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be used as follow-up treatment if surgery wasn’t able to remove the entire tumor. Our thoracic surgeons, radiation oncologists and medical oncologists work together to deliver the tailored treatment patients deserve.

If you have experienced any of the symptoms mentioned above and are concerned that thymoma may be the underlying cause, Moffitt’s oncologists can help you get the answers you deserve. As your cancer diagnosis is a top priority, you can speak to one of our cancer experts as soon as possible. You can make an appointment by submitting a new patient registration form online or calling 1-888-663-3488.