Thymus Cancer: Diagnosis

If your healthcare provider thinks you might have a thymus tumor, you'll need some exams and tests to make sure. The process starts with your healthcare provider asking you questions. You'll be asked about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. They will also give you a physical exam.

Based on your answers and the exam, your healthcare provider will decide what tests you may need.

What tests might I need?

You might need 1 or more of these kinds of tests:

  • Imaging tests

  • Blood tests

  • Biopsy

Imaging tests

Imaging tests can be used to look for a thymus tumor.

Chest X-ray

If your healthcare provider thinks you have a problem in the middle of your chest, an X-ray is usually the first test done. It can often show tumors in the thymus, nearby organs, or lymph nodes.  

CT scan

For this test, you lie on a table as it slides through a ring-shaped CT scanner. The scanner uses X-rays to take pictures from many angles. Then a computer combines these images to make 3-D pictures of your insides. A CT scan shows much more detail and can show smaller tumors than a regular chest X-ray.

MRI

An MRI uses radio waves and magnets instead of X-rays to create very detailed images of the inside of your body. You may have this test if you can't have a CT scan for some reason. MRI is also very good at showing if cancer has spread to the brain or spinal cord.

PET scan

For this test, you’re injected with a slightly radioactive sugar. Cancer cells collect more of the sugar than normal cells. After about an hour, a special camera is used to take a picture of your whole body. It shows where the radioactive sugar has collected. These spots might be cancer.

The images from PET scans are not as detailed as those from CT scans. Some machines can do a PET scan and CT scan at the same time. This test is useful if your provider thinks the cancer may have spread but isn't sure where.

Blood tests

Blood tests aren't used to diagnose thymus tumors. But they can sometimes help rule out other problems and get a general idea of your overall health. For instance, your healthcare provider may do blood tests to look for antibodies in your blood. Certain antibodies can sometimes be found in people with myasthenia gravis or other autoimmune disorders linked to thymus tumors.

Biopsy

A biopsy is a procedure to remove tiny pieces (samples) of tissue to look for cancer cells. If your healthcare provider sees a thymus tumor on an imaging test, they will decide if it can be removed. If it can be, the next step is often surgery to take out the whole tumor.

In some cases, the diagnosis isn't clear on the imaging tests, or the whole tumor can't be removed. When this happens, you may have a biopsy instead. A doctor who specializes in looking at cells, called a pathologist, then looks at the samples. They do tests to see if there are cancer cells in the samples.

Needle biopsy

For this test, a thin, hollow needle is put through your skin and into the tumor to get a sample of it. This is often done during a CT scan of your chest. This allows your healthcare provider to watch the needle go into the tumor and make sure the sample is taken from the right place. Sometimes a needle biopsy doesn't get enough tissue to make a clear diagnosis.

Open biopsy

Surgery can be done for a biopsy. A 2-inch cut is made next to the breastbone (sternum) so a piece of the tumor can be removed. This is more involved than a needle biopsy. But it’s also more likely to provide a large enough sample for diagnosis. You may hear this called the Chamberlain procedure.

Getting your test results

It usually takes several days for the results of your biopsy to come back. When your healthcare provider has the results of your tests, they will contact you. Ask how you can expect to find out your biopsy results. Will it be a phone call or do you need to make an appointment?

Your provider will talk with you about other tests you may need if a thymus tumor is found. Make sure you understand the results and what your next steps should be.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.