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Thymus Cancer: Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anticancer medicines to kill cancer cells. The medicines attack and kill cells that grow quickly, like cancer cells. Some normal cells also grow quickly. Because of this, chemo can harm those cells. This can cause side effects.

When might chemo be used for a thymus tumor? 

Not everyone with a thymus tumor needs chemo. Whether you need chemo and what type of chemo you need, depends mainly on these factors:

  • The stage (extent) of the cancer

  • The goal of treatment

  • Your age and overall health

  • Concerns you have about side effects

  • What treatments you have had in the past (if any)

Your healthcare provider may recommend chemo to treat a thymus tumor in any of these cases:

  • If you have a thymus tumor that might be hard to remove with surgery, you may get chemo before surgery. This is done to try to shrink the tumor to make it easier to take it out. You may get it alone or with radiation. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. 

  • You may have chemo after surgery (alone or with radiation) to help make sure all the cancer cells are killed. This is called adjuvant chemo.

  • If you have cancer that hasn’t spread but can't be removed with surgery, or if you are not healthy enough for surgery, chemo is often part of the main treatment. It can often shrink the cancer or keep it under control for as long as possible. It can also often help ease symptoms from the cancer.

When chemo and radiation are given together, it's sometimes called chemoradiation.

How is chemo given for thymus tumors?

Before treatment starts, you’ll meet with a medical oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medicines like chemo. The doctor will discuss your treatment options with you and explain what you might expect. 

When treating thymus tumors, chemo is normally given by IV. This means you’ll get chemo through a small tube (catheter) that’s been put into a vein so the chemo goes right into your blood. It may drip in slowly over several hours, or it may be given more quickly over a few minutes. Sometimes it's given non-stop for a few days. In this case, you might go home with a bag that holds the chemo and a small pump that controls the flow into your blood.

Chemo is normally given in an outpatient setting. This means that you get it at a hospital, clinic, or healthcare provider's office. Then you go home after treatment. Less often, you may need to stay in the hospital during treatment. Your healthcare provider will watch you for reactions during chemo. Since each treatment may last for a while, you may want to take along something that’s comforting, such as music to listen to. You may also want to bring something to keep you busy, such as a book or mobile device.

You’ll get chemo in cycles. This is done to reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover. Each cycle consists of one or more days of treatment, followed by some time to rest. Cycles typically last 3 or 4 weeks. Most people get 4 to 6 cycles as part of their initial treatment. This usually takes many months. Your healthcare provider will discuss your schedule with you so you know what to expect.

What chemo medicines are used to treat thymus tumors?

These are some common chemo medicines used to treat thymus tumors:

  • Carboplatin

  • Cisplatin

  • Cyclophosphamide

  • Doxorubicin

  • Etoposide

  • Fluorouracil (5-FU) with leucovorin

  • Gemcitabine

  • Ifosfamide

  • Paclitaxel

  • Pemetrexed

  • Vincristine

Two or more of these medicines are often combined as the first treatment.

People who are not healthy enough to get combinations of medicines or people who have already gotten chemo for their thymus tumor may only get one medicine.

Other medicines to treat thymus tumors

Octreotide is a man-made version of a hormone called somatostatin. It can help some people with thymus tumors.

Targeted medicines work differently from standard chemo medicines. They sometimes work when chemo medicines are no longer helpful. They tend to have different types of side effects. These medicines include: 

  • Sunitinib

  • Everolimus

What are common side effects of chemo?

Side effects of chemo are different for everyone. They vary based on the medicines you get. Below is a list of the some of the most common chemo side effects. Ask your healthcare provider what side effects to watch for.

Hair loss

If you have hair loss, the hair will often grow back after the treatment stops.

Nausea and vomiting

This side effect can often be controlled and even prevented with medicines.

Mouth sores

Chemo can sometimes cause mouth sores. This might make it hard for you to eat or swallow. It's important to keep your mouth very clean and avoid foods and substances that could irritate your mouth.


If you have diarrhea, take anti-diarrheal medicines as prescribed by your healthcare provider. You may also need to make changes in your diet.

Loss of appetite or changes in the way things taste

Talk to your healthcare provider if you find you’re having trouble eating or are losing weight. There are often ways to help.

Increased risk for infection

During chemo, your white blood cell count may become low. This means your immune system won’t be working as well as it should. It’s important to avoid people who have illnesses that you could catch. It’s also a good idea to take extra safety measures against cuts and scrapes that could become infected.

Your healthcare provider will check your blood counts regularly during your treatment. Let your healthcare provider know if you have any signs of an infection. Symptoms include fever, chills, sore throat, a new cough, or burning during urination.

Bleeding and bruising more easily

Chemo can also lower your blood platelet counts. Platelets are needed to help the blood clot well. 


You may feel tired while getting chemo. This normally goes away over time once treatment ends. 


Some other side effects can also be seen with certain chemo medicines. For example, cisplatin, carboplatin, and some other medicines can cause nerve damage (neuropathy). This can lead to pain, tingling, and numbness in your hands and feet.

Working with your healthcare provider

It's important to know which chemo drugs you're taking. Write down the names of your medicines. Ask your healthcare team how each one works and what side effects they might cause.

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for and when to call them. For example, chemo can make you more likely to get infections. Make sure you know what number to call with problems or questions. Is there a different number for evenings and weekends?

It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your healthcare team to make a plan to manage your side effects.

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
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