Thymus Cancer: Surgery

Surgery is often used to treat thymus tumors. Different kinds of surgery may be done. Which type you have depends on how much the cancer has spread, and other factors. 

When might surgery be used for thymus tumors?

Surgery is normally the main treatment for thymus tumors if it can be done. The goal is to remove the tumor and often the rest of the thymus. In some cases, you may need surgery for a diagnosis. Or it may be done to treat the tumor.

Your healthcare provider may recommend surgery even if he or she doesn’t think all of the tumor can be removed. Here, the goal is to take out as much of the tumor as possible (called debulking). This might help other treatments, like radiation and chemotherapy, work better. Not all healthcare providers agree with this, though.

Types of surgery for thymus tumors


The main type of surgery for thymus tumors is called a thymectomy. This is when the tumor and the rest of your thymus is removed. If the cancer has reached nearby structures, such as the lining of your lung (pleura), lining around your heart (pericardium), or a lung, your healthcare provider may remove these tumors as well.

This type of surgery is often done through a cut made in the front of your chest and through the middle of your breastbone (sternum). This is called a median sternotomy. Less often, the surgery might be done through several small cuts (incisions). In this case, the surgeon uses special long, thin surgical tools that are put in through the cuts. This approach should only be done by surgeons at centers that have a lot of experience with this technique.

Possible risks, complications, and side effects of surgery

All surgery has risks. Some of the risks of any major surgery include:

  • Reactions to anesthesia

  • Pain

  • Heavy bleeding

  • Blood clots in the legs or lungs

  • Damage to nearby organs

  • Infection

Risks from surgery for a thymus tumor

Along with the risks above, thymus tumor surgery can sometimes cause other problems. These can include:

  • Pneumonia. Some people have lung problems after surgery. This can lead to pneumonia.

  • Trouble breathing. This can be a problem if part or all of a lung is removed.

Getting ready for your surgery

Before you go for surgery, you’ll meet with your surgeon to talk about the procedure. At this time, you can ask any questions and discuss any concerns you may have. This is also a good time to review the side effects of the surgery and to talk about its risks. You might ask if the surgery will leave scars and what those scars will look like. You might also want to ask when you can expect to return to your normal activities. After you’ve discussed all the details with your surgeon, you'll sign a consent form that says he or she can do the surgery.

On the day of your surgery, you should arrive at the hospital admission area a couple of hours before your surgery is supposed to start. There, you'll complete the needed paperwork and then go to a pre-op area. There, you’ll undress and put on a hospital gown. You'll see your doctors and nurses there, and they will ask you about your medical history and medicine allergies. They’ll also talk about the surgical procedure. Try not to get frustrated by the repetition. These questions are repeated to help prevent mistakes.

While you’re in the pre-op area, an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist evaluate you. He or she will explain the anesthesia you'll be given during surgery. The purpose of the anesthesia is to put you to sleep so that you won't feel any pain during the operation. Be sure to answer all the questions well and honestly. This helps prevent complications. Also, ask any questions you have about your anesthesia. You’ll have to sign a form that states that you understand the risks involved.

Your surgeon will also see you in the pre-op area. You can ask any last-minute questions you have. This can help put your mind at ease.

What to expect during surgery

When it’s time for your surgery, you’ll be taken into the operating room. There will be many people there. This includes the anesthesiologist, surgeon, and nurses. To ensure sterility, everyone will wear a surgical gown and a face mask. Once you’re in the room, medical staff will move you onto the operating table. There, your anesthesiologist or nurse will put an intravenous line (IV) into your arm. This requires just a small skin prick. (Sometimes the IV may be started in the pre-op area instead.) Someone might put special stockings on your legs to help prevent blood clots. Electrocardiogram (ECG) wires with small, sticky pads on the end will be attached to your chest to monitor your heart. A blood pressure cuff will be wrapped around your arm. When all the preparation is done, you’ll be given the anesthesia and will fall asleep.

During surgery, a catheter may be placed through your urethra and into your bladder. This is a soft, hollow tube used to drain urine into a bag. You’ll also have a breathing tube placed in your windpipe. A breathing machine (ventilator) will control your breathing. Also, a nasogastric (NG) tube may be put in your nose. This tube extends into your stomach to drain its contents. 

What's removed during surgery and where your incisions are depend on the type of surgery you have. This is based on where the tumor is.

After your surgery is done, medical staff will move you to the recovery room. There, they'll monitor you for another hour or two. When you wake up, don't be alarmed by the number of tubes and wires attached to you. These are normal post-op monitors. When you’re fully awake in the recovery room, your family will be able to see you for a short time. Once you’re awake and stable, you'll be moved to a regular hospital room.

What to expect after surgery

When you first wake up, you might have some pain. Your healthcare provider will give you pain relievers as needed to help you feel more comfortable. The pain medicines will also help you get up and walk the day after your surgery. This is important for your recovery.

It will take you time to get back to eating normally and having regular bowel movements. You'll still have the catheter in your bladder to drain urine. It allows your healthcare providers to measure your urine output. This helps to keep track of your fluid status and make sure you're drinking enough liquids. It’s normally taken out before you go home.

You’ll likely need to stay in the hospital for several days. You can slowly return to most normal activities once you leave the hospital. But you should avoid lifting heavy things for several weeks. Always follow the instructions you get from your healthcare team.

After surgery, you may feel weak or tired for a while. The amount of time it takes to heal from an operation is different for each person. But you may not feel like yourself for many months. Your healthcare provider will give you instructions about whether and when you can get your incisions wet. You likely won't be able to drive for a while, as directed by your healthcare providers.

Talk to your healthcare team 

If you have any questions about your operation, be sure to talk to your healthcare team. They can help you know what to expect before, during, and after your surgery.

Ask your healthcare provider what signs of problems you should watch for and when to call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero MD
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2019
© 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.