Thoracic Cancer | Cancer


Thoracic Cancer

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the largest and most comprehensive program in the region for lung and thoracic (chest cavity) cancers.

Medically reviewed by David Tom Cooke, M.D. on July 07, 2023.

Group of healthcare workers pointing and looking at a screen in the hospital.

Thoracic Cancer

Our thoracic oncologists and surgeons at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of chest cancers. With the largest and most comprehensive program in the region, we care for all types and stages of thoracic cancers with expertise that is unmatched in Northern California.

We also participate in ongoing clinical trials, which means you may be eligible for tests and treatments not available elsewhere. Research studies keep us at the forefront of the latest thoracic cancer advances, so you receive the most effective care.  


Types of Thoracic Cancer

Thoracic cancer is any cancer that develops inside your chest. Your chest houses your lungs, heart, esophagus, and other organs. It is protected by your ribcage on the front and sides and your spinal bones (vertebrae) on the back.

The most common type of chest cavity cancer is lung cancer. But cancer can also start in your:

  • Esophagus (tube between your throat and stomach)
  • Mesothelium (lining of your lungs, diaphragm and rib cage)
  • Thymus (butterfly-shaped gland behind your sternum or breastplate)

Specialists typically divide lung cancer into two categories:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer makes up about 80% of lung cancers in the U.S.
  • Small cell lung cancer is less common but more aggressive than non-small cell lung cancer.

Thoracic Cancer Symptoms

Thoracic cancers share many symptoms, so it can be difficult to tell them apart. Contact your physician for an expert evaluation and diagnosis as soon as you notice something is wrong. Early detection can lead to more effective treatment.

Common Symptoms

General symptoms of cancer in your chest cavity may include:

  • Cough, sometimes with blood or mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Hoarseness
  • Pain or tightness in your chest or throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Fluid build-up in your chest or abdomen
  • Lumps in your chest

Thymic Cancer Symptoms

Thymic cancer symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Swollen face and arms

Esophageal Cancer Symptoms

Esophageal cancer symptoms may include: 

  • Indigestion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Painful swallowing

Emergency Symptoms 

Seek immediate medical attention or call 911 if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • High fever
  • Large amounts of blood coming up when you cough or vomit
  • Severe chest pain
  • Swelling or discoloration in your face or limbs

Thoracic Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Thoracic cancer occurs when cells grow and divide too quickly, forming tumors. Changes (mutations) in genes can disrupt the normal signals that prevent cells from multiplying uncontrollably.

You may inherit abnormal genes, or genes can change or be damaged during your lifetime. Certain risk factors increase your chances of developing genetic changes that can lead to cancer, including:


Smoking tobacco or exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke are the leading causes of lung cancer. Smoking causes about 80% of all lung cancer deaths. Smokeless tobacco, such as chewing tobacco or snuff, also increases your risk of esophageal cancer.


Asbestos is a mineral once used in building materials and insulation. Exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma (cancer in the lining of your lungs).


Radon is a natural, odorless gas that may increase your risk of developing lung cancer, and some other cancers.


Exposure to radiation, usually from past radiation therapy for cancer, can increase your risk of some thoracic cancers.

Other Environmental Exposures

Research is ongoing about links between air pollution and exposure to other chemicals that could increase the chances of lung and thoracic cancers.


Diagnosing Thoracic Cancer

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, we focus on catching thoracic cancers as early as possible — when treatment is more effective. Our specialists use the latest tests to quickly find, diagnose and stage cancer. Staging is the process of determining how advanced your cancer is.

Your physician begins by reviewing your symptoms and medical history. It’s important to provide details about your smoking history and any other risks factors that could increase your chances of thoracic cancer.

Your physician may order tests if they suspect you have cancer or another problem in your chest cavity:  

  • Bronchoscopy: We insert a thin tube with a video camera on one end (bronchoscope) through your mouth and down your throat to look at your lungs and airways. Your physician may do a bronchoscopy to check for lung or esophageal cancer, or to take a sample of tissue for a biopsy. At UC Davis Health, we specialize in robotic-assisted bronchoscopy. Robotic technology creates a 3D map of your lungs, allowing us to locate, biopsy and treat lung masses in a single procedure.
  • Chest X-ray: A chest X-ray is useful for spotting large tumors, fluid build-up and thickened tissue in the lungs. A chest X-ray won’t show small lung tumors or nodules (abnormal growths).
  • CT scan: A CT scan uses X-rays to create multidimensional views of your chest. It’s the most common test used to screen for and diagnose lung cancer and thymic cancers (thymoma and thymic carcinoma).
  • Lung biopsy: A biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of thoracic cancer. During a biopsy, we take a tissue sample from a tumor or fluid from your lungs and examine it for signs of cancer. We get the sample using a needle, bronchoscope or through a very small incision in your chest.
  • MRI: Your physician may recommend an MRI to find out if cancer in your chest has spread to other parts of your body, such as your lymph nodes or your brain. An MRI is rarely used on its own to diagnose lung or other thoracic cancers.
  • PET scan: During a PET scan, we inject a small amount of a radioactive substance into a vein. Cancer cells absorb the substance, so fast-growing tumors show up clearly on scans. We often combine PET scans with CT.  

Thoracic Cancer Treatments at UC Davis Health

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, we take a team approach to thoracic cancer care. Experts in medical oncology, pulmonary medicine, thoracic surgery, radiation oncology, pathology and radiology work together to customize your treatment. They draw on a wide range of leading-edge treatments, including clinical trials, to help you achieve the best possible outcome.

Our treatments for lung cancer and other thoracic cancers include:

Thoracic Surgery

For early-stage cancer in your lungs, thymus or esophagus, surgery may be the only treatment you need. For advanced cancer, we may shrink the tumor first with chemotherapy with or without radiation before surgery. Or we may do surgery to reduce the size of the tumor (debulking). We then may follow surgery with radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Thoracic surgeries we offer to remove cancer include:

  • Esophagectomy (all or part of your esophagus)
  • Lobectomy (one lobe of your lung)
  • Omentectomy (lining around your abdomen)
  • Pleurectomy (lining of your lungs)
  • Pneumonectomy (one entire lung)
  • Segmentectomy or wedge (part of one lobe of your lung)
  • Sleeve resection (part of one lung and part of your main airway, with reconstruction)

More common than not, we perform thoracic surgery using minimally invasive techniques. UC Davis Health leads the region in video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) and robotic lung surgery. As the only academic medical center in our region, we routinely use minimally invasive techniques to treat thoracic cancers.

Our expertise in robotic-assisted bronchoscopy means we can often locate lung nodules, biopsy them on-site and remove early-stage cancers in a single procedure. Patients receive immediate treatment, without the stress of waiting weeks or months for surgery.

Robotic surgery uses several small incisions and a high definition camera and a complex robot to operate on organs in your chest. This allows us to remove some tumors without opening your breastbone, resulting in: 

  • Faster recovery
  • Less pain
  • Fewer visible scars
  • Lower risk of complications
  • Shorter hospitalization

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-powered X-rays or other forms of energy to shrink or destroy tumors. You may have radiation therapy alone or in combination with surgery.

The most common type of radiation for thoracic cancers is external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). In this procedure, a machine that doesn’t touch your body aims radiation directly at the tumor. Radiation therapy is less common for mesothelioma.

In some cases, we may use internal radiation therapy. Also called brachytherapy, this treatment implants a radioactive substance, such as a capsule, inside your body very close to the tumor. The implant releases high doses of radiation to a small area. Brachytherapy tends to have fewer side effects than EBRT.

Other Treatments for Thoracic Cancer

We also use medication to fight cancer in several ways, including:

  • Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to destroy cancer cells
  • Targeted therapy, which targets proteins and genes that allow cancer cells to grow and divide
  • Immunotherapy, which harnesses your body’s own immune system to fight cancer

Preventing Thoracic Cancer

Lung and other thoracic cancers sometimes can be prevented. Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke are the best ways to reduce your risk.

To find out if you have risk factors for lung cancer, talk to your physician about screening. Screenings are tests that detect cancer or other diseases before symptoms develop.

A lung cancer screening uses low-dose CT scans (a type of imaging exam) to create detailed images of your lungs. To detect lung cancer, we look for tumors and other abnormal growths.

Your physician may recommend yearly screening if you:

  • Are a current or former smoker between 50 and 80 years old
  • Smoked the equivalent of at least one pack a day (20 cigarettes) for 20 years or more
  • Or quit within the last 15 years

"Lung Cancer - Non-Small Cell: Statistics," American Society of Clinical Oncology,

"Lung Cancer: Screening," U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, 

How many cases?

197KLung and bronchus cancer diagnosis in 2020 in the U.S.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Changes Over Time: Lung and Bronchus

Request an Appointment

Our cancer specialists provide thorough evaluations and personalized treatment plans. Learn more about how to make an appointment at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.



UC Davis Health Referring Physicians

For providers in UC Davis Medical Group or our Cancer Care Network

External Referring Physicians

For providers who are external clinicians

Awards and Recognitions
USNWR Best Hospital badge

Ranked among the nation’s best hospitals

A U.S. News & World Report best hospital in cancer, cardiology, heart & vascular surgery, diabetes & endocrinology, ENT, geriatrics, neurology & neurosurgery, obstetrics & gynecology, and pulmonology & lung surgery.

Learn more
US News & World Report best Children’s Hospital badge

Ranked among the nation’s best children’s hospitals

A U.S. News & World Report best children’s hospital in diabetes & endocrinology, nephrology, and orthopedics*. (*Together with Shriners Children’s)

Learn more
USNWR best regional hospital badge

Ranked Sacramento’s #1 hospital

Ranked Sacramento’s #1 hospital by U.S. News, and high-performing in COPD, colon cancer surgery, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, hip fracture, hip replacement, kidney failure, leukemia, lymphoma & myeloma, lung cancer surgery, ovarian cancer surgery, pneumonia, prostate cancer surgery, stroke, TAVR, uterine cancer surgery, gastroenterology & GI surgery, and orthopedics.

Learn more
Magnet designation badge

The nation’s highest nursing honor

UC Davis Medical Center has received Magnet® recognition, the nation’s highest honor for nursing excellence.

Learn more
Chime acute badge

“Most Wired” for acute care

UC Davis Health has been recognized as a level 10 out of 10 in the Digital Health “Most Wired” program from the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). The honor recognizes excellence in using technology to improve the delivery of care.

Learn more
Chime ambulatory badge

“Most Wired” for ambulatory care

UC Davis Health has been recognized as a level 10 out of 10 in the Digital Health “Most Wired” program from the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). The honor recognizes excellence in using technology to improve the delivery of care.

Learn more
NCI badge

World-class cancer care

One of ~56 U.S. cancer centers designated “comprehensive” by the National Cancer Institute.

Learn more

A leader in health care equality

For the 11th consecutive year, UC Davis Medical Center has been recognized as a “Leader in LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality.”

Learn more
See more