Some common health complaints are easy to ignore or blame on other factors, but not speaking to your GP about these issues could mean missing an early cancer diagnosis. Cancers of the thymus gland can affect your airways, leading to wheezing and feeling dizzy.
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Diagnosing cancer early is the most important way to increase the survival rate and prevent the disease from spreading to other parts of your body. However, to do this you have to know which symptoms should be of concern and whether you should relay any concerns to your GP.
Symptoms like shortness of breath and wheezing have become more prevalent throughout the Covid pandemic, but with other health issues, could be an early warning sign of a rare cancer of the thymus - a gland situated in your chest that produces the "T cells" that helps your body fight off infections.
There are two types of thymus gland cancers. Thymoma, which develops slowly in the cells on the surface of the organ, or thymic carcinoma, which spreads into other organs via tissue and lymph nodes, a process also known as metastasis.
According to Macmillan, while the causes of this cancer are unknown, thymoma is most prevalent in people aged 40 to 60, while thymic carcinoma can affect people of any age. Roughly one in five thymus cancer diagnoses are for thymic carcinoma.
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As the thymus gland's primary role is the production of disease-fighting white blood cells, many of its symptoms begin to appear when the cancer has already started to develop. Cancer Research UK says: “They are found by chance when you're having tests for something else.
“When they do cause symptoms, it’s usually because the cancer has grown to press on nearby areas in the chest."
Though some thymus cancer cases are asymptomatic, the common symptoms of the illness are:
- Chest pain
- Persistent cough
- Coughing up blood
- Becoming breathless or wheezy
- Difficulty swallowing
- A hoarse voice.
As the thymus is close to the largest vein in the human body, the vena cava. The cancer can press on it and cause superior vena cava syndrome. Symptoms can include:
- Swelling in the face, chest and upper neck
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
The most common treatment for the cancer is a surgical removal of the thymus, called a thymectomy. Cancer Research UK says: "“The most common surgery for thymus gland cancer is a thymectomy.
“Your surgeon makes a cut down the middle of the chest to remove the whole of the thymus gland.
“They may also remove part of nearby organs such as the: lymph nodes, lungs and the layer of tissue covering the heart.”
After this surgery, most patients will also go through a period of chemotherapy or radiotherapy to remove any remaining cancerous cells.
Sadly, if thymus cancer returns it can be difficult to treat. Cancer Research UK says: "Unfortunately, if your thymus gland cancer comes back, it can be difficult to get rid of it altogether.
“Treatment can often keep it under control for some time.”
The tests for thymus cancers are relatively simple and, if you present the symptoms of the illness, could include:
- Blood tests
- PET scan
- MRI scan
- Lung function tests
Thankfully, thymus cancers are relatively rare in the UK, with 345 diagnoses in the past year. If you are concerned about any worrying personal health problems, speak to your GP or local health centre about arranging a test.