The thymus is a gland located behind the middle of your chest (sternum) and in front of your lungs. Its main function is to make thymosin to mature and produce immune cells (T cells) to help fight infections and prevent your immune cells from attacking your own body (a condition called autoimmunity). The thymus develops most of your T cells by puberty, after which the gland starts to shrink and is replaced with fat tissue. Thymomas are tumors that slowly grow from the lining of the gland and account for ninety percent of tumors found in the thymus. It is relatively rare with about 500 Americans diagnosed each year (most between the ages of 40 and 60). By learning what symptoms of thymomas to look for and the diagnostic tests associated with the condition, you can know when to see a doctor and what to expect of the diagnosis process.
Recognizing Symptoms of a Thymoma
1. Look for shortness of breath. The tumor can press against the windpipe (trachea) causing difficulty getting air into your lungs. Note if you easily become out of breath or feel like something is stuck in your throat to cause a choking feeling.
2. Notice additional coughing. The tumor can irritate your lungs, trachea (windpipe), and the nerves associated with your cough reflex. Note if you have had a chronic cough from months to years with no relief from suppressants, steroids, and antibiotics.
3. Note instances of chest pain. Due to the tumor pushing on the chest wall and heart, you may develop chest pain characterized by a pressure-like feeling and location only in the center of your chest. Also, you can develop pain behind the breastbone that may hurt when applying pressure to the area.
4. Watch for trouble swallowing. The thymus can grow and push against the esophagus, causing difficulty swallowing. Note if you have trouble swallowing meals or you recently switched to a more liquid diet because it's easier. The trouble may also feel like a choking sensation.
5. Weigh yourself. Because the thymus tumor can become cancerous and spread throughout the body (very rarely), you may experience weight loss due to the increased needs of the cancer tissue. Check your current weight against an older reading.
6. Examine for superior vena cava syndrome. The superior vena cava is a large vessel that collects the returning blood from the veins of the head, neck, upper extremities, and upper torso back in the heart.
7. Note symptoms consistent with myasthenia gravis (MG). MG is the most common paraneoplastic syndrome, which is a set of symptoms that are caused by cancer.
8. Look for symptoms of red blood cell aplasia. This is the destruction of premature red blood cells, which leads to symptoms of anemia (low red blood cells). Reduced RBC will lead to lack of oxygen throughout the body.
9. Examine for symptoms of hypogammaglobulinemia. This is when your body lowers production of infection-fighting gamma globulins (protein antibodies).
Diagnosing a Thymoma
1. See your doctor. Your doctor will collect a detailed medical history, including family history and symptoms.
2. Have your blood drawn. There are no lab tests for thymoma diagnosis, but there is a blood test to detect myasthenia gravis (MG) called anti-Cholinesterase AB.
3. Submit to an x-ray. To visualize a tumor mass, your physician will first order an x-ray of the chest. The radiologist will look for a mass or shadow near the center of the chest on the lower neck.
4. Undergo a CT scan. A CT scan will take multiple, detailed images in cross sections from the lower part to the upper part of your chest.