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What is a Mediastinal Tumor?

The mediastinum lies between the right and left pleurae (a delicate membrane that encloses the lungs) in and near the median sagittal plane of the chest. It extends from the sternum in front to the vertebral column behind, and contains the heart, aorta (the body's largest artery), esophagus, thymus (one of the glands), trachea, lymph nodes, and nerves. The mediastinum is bordered by the breastbone (sternum) in front, the spine in back, and the 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)
  • Middle
  • 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 the 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 the 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 the nervous system. Typically they are non-cancerous in adults. These are located in the posterior (back) of the mediastinum, which is an area in the chest behind the breastbone that contains the heart, aorta, trachea, and thymus.

Symptoms of Mediastinal Tumors

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:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Coughing up blood
  • Hoarseness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lymphadenopathy (swollen or tender lymph nodes)
  • Wheezing
  • Stridor (high-pitched, noisy breathing that can signal an obstruction in the respiratory tract, especially the trachea or larynx voice box)

Causes of 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.

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