Thymic neoplasms are tumors that develop in the thymus gland.
People with thymic neoplasms frequently have myasthenia gravis — a chronic, progressive autoimmune disorder that causes the muscles of the head, face, and body to become weak and easily fatigued.
The thymus gland sits in the upper chest area just behind the breastbone (sternum). Its purpose is to make white blood cells (lymphocytes) that protect against infection.
Different types of tumors can develop in the thymus. Doctors refer to these as thymic neoplasms.
Types of thymic neoplasms:
People with thymic neoplasms frequently have an autoimmune disease — such as myasthenia gravis — that causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy tissues and organs.
Myasthenia gravis is a chronic and progressive autoimmune disease in which the cranial, facial, and body muscles become very weak and easily fatigued. It can occur in people of any age, but commonly occurs in women under 40 and men over 60.
Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disorder that causes your body’s immune system to attack healthy organs and tissues in your body, resulting in their destruction.
Normally, your nerves send your muscles messages through a receptor. Nerves use a chemical called acetylcholine to deliver these messages. When the acetylcholine binds to the receptor area of a nerve, the muscle contracts.
With myasthenia gravis, the immune system attacks the muscle's receptor for acetylcholine.
Experts don’t understand exactly why the body begins to produce immune antibodies that attack the acetylcholine receptors. However, it seems to relate in some way to the thymus gland, which assists the body in producing antibodies.
Approximately 15 percent of those with myasthenia gravis also have a thymoma.
Contact the UPMC Esophageal and Lung Surgery Institute with questions or for more information.Or, call the Thoracic and Foregut Surgery Division at 412-647-7555.
Frequently, thymic neoplasms do not cause any recognizable symptoms. A doctor may discover the cancer during a routine chest x-ray.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, consult your doctor. A number of conditions could cause these symptoms and they aren’t necessarily indicative of thymic neoplasms.
The health care team in UPMC's Division of Thoracic and Foregut Surgery may use one of the following tests or procedures to detect and identify a thymoma or thymic carcinoma:
The primary sign that a person may have myasthenia gravis is muscle weakness that diminishes upon resting.
Common symptoms include:
Your doctor may conduct one or more tests to confirm a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis:
If you have a thymic tumor, with or without myasthenia gravis, you will need to undergo surgery — called a thymectomy — to remove your thymus gland. Even if you don’t have a thymic neoplasm, your doctor may advise you to undergo a thymectomy for myasthenia gravis.
Many health care facilities offer only open chest surgery for thymectomy procedures. Thoracic surgeons at the UPMC Esophageal and Lung Surgery Institute perform both minimally invasive and robotic-assisted thymectomies, in addition to traditional open chest surgery.
During a thymectomy, your surgeon will remove the affected part of the thymus or the entire thymus gland.
Even if the surgeon removes the entire thymic tumor or performs a thymectomy, he may also order radiation therapy after surgery to make sure no more cancer cells develop. This will lower your risk of the cancer returning.
Other adjuvant therapies for thymic neoplasms may include chemotherapy and hormone therapy.
For mild cases of myasthenia gravis — or for people over 60 years of age — doctors can use the following non-surgical treatments to relieve symptoms:
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