Thymoma & Other Thymic Tumors: Diagnosis & Treatment

Pictured: James Huang Thoracic surgeon James Huang works with medical oncologists and radiation oncologists to provide expert, multimodal care that is personalized to each patient.

Rare tumors located in the chest next to vital structures such as the heart and lungs are best treated by physicians familiar with how they develop and which approaches have worked in the past. In many cases, the complexity involved in the management of these tumors requires specialized and coordinated care.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, you receive care from a highly coordinated, multidisciplinary team of experts that includes thoracic surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, neurologists, pathologists, and radiologists. Each year, we diagnose and treat more people with thymomas and thymic tumors than any other cancer center in the world.

Our team develops a treatment strategy customized to each patient, based on such factors as the type of tumor involved, the stage of the disease, and the condition of overall health. It may include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. In many cases, we are able to offer the latest in minimally invasive surgical techniques that minimize pain and shorten recovery time.

We are involved in the latest research advances for these cancers, conducting clinical trials to investigate the effectiveness of new chemotherapy combinations following surgery, for example, and evaluating medicines to inhibit tumor growth in people with advanced disease. Our extensive thymoma database tracks the outcomes of patients and is helping us to continuously update and refine treatment options.

In addition, we are examining the genetic and molecular characteristics of these tumors to better understand how they start to grow, and to create more targeted therapies.

Imaging Tests and Biopsy to Diagnose Tumors

Imaging tests such as chest x-rays, CT scans, MRI, and PET scans can help us determine the size, shape, and location of the tumor, as well as whether the disease has spread beyond the thymus.

To make the initial diagnosis, a doctor will take a small tissue sample (biopsy) from the area and examine it under a microscope. The sample can be obtained with a needle biopsy, in which the doctor removes a small sample of cells with a thin needle inserted into the chest, or with a surgical biopsy (a Chamberlain procedure or a mediastinotomy), in which the doctor makes a small incision in the chest and removes a sample of the tumor.

Sometimes, a surgeon performing a surgical biopsy is able to remove the tumor completely in the course of that procedure.

Advanced Surgical Techniques and Coordinated Care

Surgery is often the only treatment needed for tumors that haven’t spread beyond the thymus (stage I). Our surgeons are also experienced in removing tumors that have spread to the tissues immediately surrounding the thymus (stage II), to neighboring organs (stage III), or into the chest cavity (stage IV).

In many people, early-stage tumors of the thymus are identified by chance during examination of an unrelated issue and can be treated through minimally invasive techniques. We remove many small and moderately sized thymomas with a high degree of precision and minimal discomfort using the assistance of surgical robotics.

Often our patients are able to return home after only an overnight stay in the hospital. Memorial Sloan Kettering thoracic surgeons are among the leaders in the development and use of these minimally invasive and robotic techniques.

Expertise in Chemotherapy & Radiation Therapy

People with large and more-advanced thymic tumors, as well as tumors that return after treatment, often require a combination of treatments including chemotherapy and radiation in addition to extensive surgery.

As leaders in the field of rare diseases, our medical oncologists can often offer chemotherapy options alongside innovative clinical trials using novel targeted agents.

Sometimes radiation therapy is recommended following surgery if tumors have spread beyond the thymus or chest. At Memorial Sloan Kettering, we have radiation therapists with expertise in thymic tumors. We may also recommend radiation therapy if surgery is not an option, or to help relieve symptoms if the disease has spread to other parts of the body.