What to Know About Chemotherapy for Thymus Cancer

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. For this treatment, you see a medical oncologist. This doctor specializes in using drugs to treat cancer. For thymus cancer, your doctor is likely to give you more than one drug. This is called combination chemotherapy.

You may take chemotherapy by an intravenous line (IV) into one of your veins or you may take it in the form of a pill. Either way, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment because the drugs travel in the bloodstream killing cancer cells throughout your entire body. Most people with thymus cancer have chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. In some cases, depending on your health or the drugs you take, you may need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles. This means you will be treated for a period of time and then you will have a rest period. Each treatment and rest period make up one cycle. You'll likely have more than one cycle of treatment. Your doctor will explain your treatment plan and what you can expect. The length of each treatment period differs, depending on the type of drug or drugs you take. With many types of chemotherapy, treatments are given every three to four weeks. Sometimes you will get chemotherapy more often.

Common chemotherapy drug combinations for thymus cancer

These are the main drugs used to treat thymus cancer:

  • Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide)

  • Ellence (epirubicin)

  • Adriamycin (doxorubicin)

  • Platinol (cisplatin)

  • VP-16 (etoposide)

  • Ifex (ifosfamide)

  • Oncovin (vincristine)

  • Carboplatin

  • Taxol (paclitaxel)

  • Alimta (pemetrexed)

  • 5-FU (5-fluorouracil)

  • Gemzar (gemcitabine) 

These drugs work best when they are given in combination. One common combination includes cisplatin, doxorubicin, and cyclophosphamide. 

Prednisone, a steroid medication, is often given with chemotherapy.

Potential side effects from chemotherapy for thymus cancer

Chemotherapy affects both normal cells and cancer cells. Side effects depend on the type and amount of drug or drugs you take. Here are some common side effects of chemotherapy for thymus cancer. Ask your doctor which ones are the most likely for you:

  • Appetite loss

  • Bruising or bleeding more easily

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Fatigue

  • Hair loss

  • Mouth sores

  • Nausea and vomiting

Other side effects may also occur, such as fatigue or shortness of breath due to low red blood cell counts (anemia), infections due to low white blood cell count (neutropenia), or increased bleeding and bruising due to low platelet count (thrombocytopenia). Blood cell counts tend to be lowest (and therefore, these side effects tend to be most common) 5 to 10 days after chemotherapy is given, and the counts normalize by the end of the cycle. Some patients have problems with very low counts or delayed improvement in blood counts. They may require chemotherapy dose reduction or delay, use of growth factor shots, or blood transfusions.