Thymus gland resides in the upper chest, just beneath the neck and produces white blood cells (WBCs) before birth as well as childhood period. These WBCs comprise the major party of immune system of the body. On getting released from thymus, these WBCs move to lymph nodes to fight off all infections. Thymus gland gradually becomes smaller with adulthood and finally is taken over by fat tissues.
Majority of thymic tumors can be observed during x rays performed for some other ailment and before the appearance of symptoms. Patients of thymic cancer experience fullness that can be easily felt in the lower neck region by the doctor.
Different Forms Of Thymus Gland Cancer
There are three major forms of thymus gland cancer that can occur. When epithelial cells of the outer surface of thymus become carcinogenic, these result in thymoma or thymic carcinoma. When lymphocytes within the thymus become cancerous, they result in Hodgkin’s disease. Neuroendocrine cells of thymus release hormones from thymus, called as Kulchitsky cells and when these cells become cancerous, it is referred as thymic carcinoid tumors. Lastly, when the cancer is formed in thymic and fatty tissue of thymus, it is known as thymolipoma.
Though a rare occurrence, thymomas are the commonest of all forms of thymus gland cancers. But, thymic carcinoma spreads the most and known to be the most aggressive type. Thymoma and thymic cancers affect women and men with same probability in their middle or old age, but thymic carcinoid tumors occur more often in men.
Major Signs And Symptoms Of Thymus Gland Cancer
The cause of thymus gland cancer is not known, but is caused when the usual cell growth mechanisms get disrupted, causing unending growth of cells.
Thymic Tumors And Thymic Carcinoid Tumors
Thymic tumors are only evident, when thymus presses over the trachea (windpipe) or blood vessels producing symptoms.
The symptoms include face swelling, chest pain, coughing and shortness of breath. In thymic carcinoid tumors, hormonal disturbances result in symptoms like asthma, warm skin and diarrhea.
Around 40% of thymoma patients do not show any symptoms and the others show vary varied symptoms that are linked to others diseases caused by thymoma. The disorders caused by thymoma are called as paraneoplastic syndromes and include myasthenia gravis, red cell aplasia and hypogammaglobulinemia. These disorders arise as a result of autoimmune diseases that attack specific normal cells of the body.
Symptoms that arise include weakness, fatigue and muscle degeneration in neck, eyes, chest, leading to problems in swallowing, vision and breathing respectively. When thymus presses the superior vena cava, a nerve that brings blood from upper body part to heart, it leads to superior vena cava syndrome with symptoms like headaches, swelling of visible veins, swelling of upper chest, face and neck, pale appearance and light headedness.
Treatment For Thymus Cancer
The primary treatment of thymus cancer is surgery. The surgery needs to be performed by thoracic surgeon, who performs a median sternotomy incision that divides the sternum (breast bone). Then, the thymus gland is being removed along with its surrounding tissue.
Patients with stage I or Stage II cancers may also need an adjuvant treatment of radiation therapy to kill the left over cancer cells or to shrink thymus tumor before the surgery. Thymus cancer patients with stage III and IV will also require additional chemotherapy to completely get rid of widespread cancerous cells, in addition to radiation therapy similar to the usual cancer treatment approaches.