Thymus Gland Cancer

Thymus gland cancer is rare—occuring in only about 500-1000 people in the United States each year. Located behind your breast bone, the thymus gland is responsible for establishing your immune system at birth. It becomes smaller and less vital as you age.

There are two types of thymus gland tumors:

  • Thymoma. This is a slow growing cancer, often associated with autoimmune disorders, such as myasthenia gravis. Not all patients who have myasthenia gravis will develop thymoma, however, patients with myasthenia gravis should be screened for thymus gland cancer.
  • Thymic carcinoma. This is a faster growing cancer. Like thymoma, it spreads along the lining of the lung, however, it also spreads into other parts of the body more quickly. Thymic carcinoma is not associated with autoimmune disorders.

The thymic cancers specialists at Indiana University Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center are among the world leaders in thymus gland cancer research. Our multidisciplinary team includes oncologists, throracic surgeons, neurologist and pathologists, working together to provide the most innovative treatment options.

Patients come to Indiana University Health from all over the world for our experience and expertise with this complex and rare disease. We are committed to sharing our knowledge and experience on a global level, offering the latest advancements to patients through our clinical research program. 

Thymus Gland Cancer Treatment

If you have cancer of the thymus gland, your treatment plan will depend on the type of tumor you have and how far it has spread.

  • Surgery. For both thymomas and thymic carcinomas that are confined to the chest area, the preferred treatment is surgical resection. Our thoracic surgery team is experienced in video assisted and robotic surgery, but recommends traditional surgery for optimal results with this type of cancer. This ensures that the tumor is removed in one piece, without cutting into the tumor and without the risk of leaving behind any cancer cells that could cause a recurrence of cancer in the future.
  • Radiotherapy. Radiotherapy is a special kind of radiation that uses high-energy waves to pinpoint cancer cells in a particular area. This can be performed after surgery to guard against recurrence, or it can be done to help shrink the tumor prior to surgery.
  • Chemotherapy. For patients who have locally advanced cancer, chemotherapy may help to shrink the tumor and, in some cases, make it more accessible for complete resection of the tumor by surgery. Patients whose cancer has spread to other body parts will likely have chemotherapy alone. 

Thymus Gland Cancer Research

At IU Health, our cancer specialists have been involved in cancer research of the thymus gland for over 30 years. We have conducted more prospective clinical trials in thymoma and thymic cancer than any other hospital in the world, we have discovered genetic markers which help to protect outcomes, and we see more patients with thymic cancers weekly than most physicians see in their lifetime. Together, this makes us a leading authority on the treatment and management of these types of cancer.

Our research accomplishments include:

  • Establishment of standard front line treatments used all over the world.
  • Conduction of more clinical trials in recurrent disease than all other institutions in the world.
  • Development of a mouse model for thymoma to mimic the disease for further research study.
  • Compilation of one of the only human cell lines from these types of tumors, used for furthering research.
  • Completion of molecular analysis of tumors to establish a signature that is predictive of metastasis for patients with thymoma and thymic carcinoma.
  • Leadership participation in the Cancer Genome Atlas project on thynoma and thymic carcinoma, with analysis of over 100 tumors collected around the world.