Surgery for Thymus Cancer

Whenever possible, surgery is used to treat thymus cancers. If you have thymus cancer, one of the first things your doctor will do is to try to figure out if the cancer is completely resectable (removable) with surgery. Imaging tests are used to do this.

The most common surgery for thymus tumors is complete removal of the thymus gland (including any tumor). This is called a thymectomy. In most cases the surgery is done through a median sternotomy. This is an incision (cut) down the middle of the chest that splits the sternum (breast bone) and allows the whole thymus and tumor to be removed.

The surgeon will also try to remove any areas of tumor spread outside of the thymus. So, if the tumor has grown into nearby structures, the surgeon may need to remove parts of those structures, as well. This could mean removing parts of the pleura (tissue coating the lung), pericardium (the sac containing the heart), nerves, the superior vena cava (a large vein leading to the heart), and/or lung.

Some doctors might suggest surgery even if the tumor cannot be completely removed, as is the case with many stage III thymomas and with most stage IV thymomas. In these cases, the doctor might take out as much tumor as possible (called debulking), and then recommend further treatment with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. But not all doctors agree that surgery to remove some and not all of the cancer can help people live longer. In some cases, chemotherapy may be given before surgery to try to shrink the tumor so that it can be more easily and completely removed.

Possible side effects of surgery for thymus cancer

Possible complications depend on the extent of the surgery and your health beforehand. Serious problems can include excessive bleeding, wound infections, and pneumonia.

You will need to stay in the hospital for several days after surgery. Because the surgeon usually will have to open your chest for the operation, the incision will hurt for some time after surgery. Your activity will be limited for at least a month or two.

Some people may need to have part or all of a lung removed. If your lungs are in good condition (other than the presence of the cancer) you can usually go back to normal activities after a lobe or even an entire lung has been removed. If you already have lung problems such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis (which are common among heavy smokers), you may become short of breath with activities after surgery.

For more general information about surgery, see Cancer Surgery.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Thymomas and Thymic Carcinomas. Version 1.2017--March 2, 2017.

Ried M, Marx A, Götz A, Hamer O, Schalke B, Hofmann HS. State of the art: diagnostic tools and innovative therapies for treatment of advanced thymoma and thymic carcinoma. Eur J Cardiothorac Surg. 2016;49(6):1545-1552. 

Last Medical Review: October 4, 2017 Last Revised: October 4, 2017

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