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Thoracic cancer

Overview of thoracic cancer

Thoracic cancer refers to any cancer located in the organs, glands, or structures of your thoracic cavity, or chest. This includes well-known cancers such as lung cancer (currently the second-most common cancer among both men and women) and esophageal cancer, as well as less common cancers such as thymus cancer and pleural cancer.

The oncology professionals at Dignity Health are here to support you through your journey with thoracic cancer. Find a Doctor today to set up a personalized treatment plan.


Thoracic cancer symptoms vary based on the specific cancer type and the tissue it affects. In the early stages, there are often no symptoms, and as a result, thoracic cancer is harder to diagnose until it is at an advanced stage.

When symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • A new cough that does not go away or gets worse with time
  • Changes in a chronic cough or “smoker’s cough”
  • Chest pain that worsens with laughing, deep breathing, or coughing
  • Coughing up blood or bloody or rust-colored mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Heartburn, indigestion, or vomiting
  • Hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Unintentional weight loss or unexplained loss of appetite
  • Weakness

These symptoms are also common in other conditions, which means that noticing one or more doesn’t mean you have cancer. Some people are also diagnosed without noticing any signs at all. Seeing a doctor is the only way to know for sure.


Cancer occurs after accumulated damage to cellular DNA. When genes are damaged, they may mutate. These mutations then cause abnormal cell growth that can spread through the body. Thoracic cancers occur when this abnormal growth happens in the chest cavity.

Health experts don’t fully understand the cause of any cancer, including thoracic cancer. Biological factors such as genes (some cancers tend to run in families), age, and hormones can contribute to cell damage and increase cancer risk. Other risk factors are environmental, such as exposure to sunlight radiation or carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances including asbestos and radioactive materials.

For thoracic cancers, lifestyle factors like diet, body weight, and smoking especially play a role. In fact, smoking is linked to 90 percent of lung cancer cases, and also substantially increases the risk of esophageal cancer.


Thoracic cancer includes all cancers occurring in the chest cavity, including lung cancers, thymic cancers, and tracheal (windpipe) cancers. Lung cancers are by far the most common type of thoracic cancer.

Some of the most common chest cavity cancers are:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer: About 85 percent of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs). These cancers include adenocarcinoma (a type of cancer beginning in the mucus-secreting cells in the lungs), squamous cell carcinoma (a type of cancer starting in the lung’s lining cells), and large cell carcinoma (which can begin in any part of the lung).
  • Small-cell lung cancer: 10-15 percent of lung cancers are small-cell cancers. This kind of cancer can start anywhere in the lung and typically grows quickly, making it easier to treat but also more likely to return over time.
  • Mesothelioma: Mesotheliomas begin in the pleura, peritoneum, or other “lining” tissues in the abdominal cavity.
  • Thymoma (also called thymic malignancy): The thymus is a small organ in the chest that sits just under the breastbone and regulates the lymph system (which makes white blood cells). Cancers that occur in the thymus are called thymomas or thymic malignancies.
  • Other cancers: Breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and some other cancers originating elsewhere in the body can sometimes metastasize to the lungs or other organs in the chest cavity, causing thoracic cancer.

Risk factors

The most significant risk factor for thoracic cancer is smoking. Almost all lung cancers occur in people who previously or currently smoke. Small-cell lung cancer, in particular, rarely occurs in people who haven’t smoked.

The more time you spend smoking, and the more cigarettes you smoke, the higher your risk. Being around other people who smoke also increases your risk. This “second-hand” smoke causes thousands of cases of thoracic cancer every year.

Other common risk factors include:

  • Exposure to radiation and radioactive materials: previous treatment for other cancers, exposure to radon, and excessive UV radiation all increase the likelihood of thoracic cancer
  • Workplace exposures: working with asbestos (common in mines, some factories, and shipyards, for example) increases the possibility of lung cancer
  • Exposure to other carcinogens: heavy metals like arsenic, beryllium, and cadmium are also carcinogenic, as are silica, coal, air pollution, and diesel fumes
  • Family history of lung cancer


Many of the exposures and factors that increase risk of thoracic cancer – such as family history, radiation, and air pollution – can’t be avoided completely.

There are still steps you can take to lower your risk, such as:

  • Not smoking. Avoiding cigarettes and tobacco products of all kinds is the best way, by far, to reduce the risk of thoracic cancers. If you currently smoke, the faster you quit, the better.
  • Using proper protective equipment. Using a mask or another approved protective device to avoid inhaling coal dust, silica, or other known carcinogens can reduce your risk.
  • Reducing your exposure to toxic substances wherever possible.
  • Maintaining your overall health through diet and regular exercise.
  • Attending regular physical exams.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.