Center for Thoracic Oncology
Diseases & Conditions
Boston Medical Center specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mediastinal tumors. We combine a highly skilled, multidisciplinary team and state-of-the-art facilities to offer a comprehensive course of treatments for mediastinal tumors, including both open surgery and minimally invasive techniques, such as robotically assisted procedures. Although we offer the latest medical techniques and state-of-the-art equipment, our patient-centered care approach takes priority. We take special care to fully discuss your condition, your treatment options, and prognosis fully, honestly, and with the respect and compassion you and your family deserve.
What is a Mediastinal Tumor?
Normal, healthy cells grow and divide to form new cells as your body needs them. They die when they grow old or become damaged, and they are replaced with new cells. Sometimes, new cells form when your body does not need them, and old or damaged cells do not die when they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. Tumor cells can be malignant, meaning cancerous, or benign, meaning non-cancerous.
The mediastinum is the part of your chest cavity that separates your lungs. Your heart, aorta (your body's largest artery), esophagus, thymus (one of your glands), trachea, lymph nodes, and nerves are contained within the mediastinum, which is bordered by your breastbone (sternum) in front, your spine in back, and your lungs on either side. Mediastinal tumors are growths that form in this area. They can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). Because some mediastinal tumors tend to grow in specific areas of the mediastinum, physicians often divide it into three sections:
- Anterior (front)
- Posterior (back)
There are different types of mediastinal tumors based on the types of cells from which the tumor grows. The main types of mediastinal tumors are:
- Thymoma, which is a tumor of the thymus gland. The thymus gland is part of the lymphatic system and is located behind your breastbone.
- Thymic carcinoma (also called C thymoma), which is a rare type of cancer of the thymus gland.
- Germ cell, which is a tumor that forms from embryologically immature cells. Although germ cell tumors can form anywhere in your body, they rarely form outside the sex organs. When they do, they frequently form in the mediastinum, and can be either benign or malignant.
- Lymphoma, which is cancer that begins in the cells of the immune system; it is grouped into two categories, Hodgkin's lymphoma or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
- Neurogenic tumors, which are tumors that begin in cells that make up your nervous system. Typically they are non-cancerous in adults. These are located in the posterior (back) of the mediastinum, which is an area in your chest behind the breastbone that contains the heart, aorta, trachea, and thymus.
What are the Symptoms?
About 40 percent of people with mediastinal tumors experience no symptoms at all. Most mediastinal tumors are discovered during a test for another reason. When symptoms occur, however, they often result from compression of the surrounding structures and may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Night sweats
- Coughing up blood
- Unexplained weight loss
- Lymphadenopathy (swollen or tender lymph nodes)
- Stridor (high-pitched, noisy breathing that can signal an obstruction in your respiratory tract, especially the trachea or larynx [voice box])
What Causes Mediastinal Tumors?
The cause of mediastinal tumors is often unknown. Although the cause may be unknown, certain kinds of mediastinal tumors may be associated with other conditions. For example, thymoma can be associated with other conditions, such as myasthenia gravis, polymyositis, lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and thyroiditis.