The expanding role of radiation therapy for thymic malignancies

Jonas Willmann, Andreas Rimner


The role of radiation therapy (RT) in thymic malignancies has long been subject to considerable controversy. The main role for RT is in the setting of adjuvant therapy after surgical tumor resection, especially in advanced or incompletely resected cases. However, recent studies with larger patient numbers and cleaner study populations than previous studies have indicated a potentially clearer than previously assumed benefit after post-operative RT (PORT) even for completely resected patients with earlier stages of thymoma. In marginally resectable patients RT may be used in combination with neoadjuvant chemotherapy to shrink tumors and thereby potentially enable resection. In unresectable patients concurrent or sequential chemotherapy and RT can be employed as the definitive nonsurgical approach. The tendency of thymic tumors to recur in the pleural space highlights the necessity for more effective approaches to identify and treat high risk patients. Experiences in other pleural malignancies may pave the way to novel treatment modalities, for example pleural IMRT. The role of these techniques in thymic malignancies has yet to be determined and is not advisable at the current time outside of a clinical study. As the disease often takes an indolent course with excellent longterm local control (LC) and survival, late toxicities related to radiation of the mediastinum and adjacent organs at risk (OARs) have to be taken into consideration and may jeopardize the benefit patients experience from RT, especially in younger patients with a long-anticipated life expectancy. Radiation techniques, such as intensity modulated RT (IMRT) and proton beam therapy (PBT), have substantially reduced the exposure of OARs to ionizing radiation which is expected to translate into reduced long-term toxicities. Hence, the risk-benefit ratio of RT in early stage thymoma patients may be shifted favorably.