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What Is Heart Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 18, 2020

Heart cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of your heart. It’s also called primary cardiac cancer. It’s very rare. In fact, almost everything we know about it comes from autopsy studies and case studies, which are published reports discussing people who have this cancer.

Cancer that starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the heart is much more common. So are heart tumors that are not cancer.

Most primary cardiac cancers (75%) are a kind of cancer called sarcoma. You might hear this called primary cardiac sarcoma. Sarcomas are cancers that start in the soft tissues of the body, like muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves. The rest of the heart cancers are mostly lymphomas and mesotheliomas.

Risk Factors

Little is known about the causes of heart cancer. There are no known risk factors linked to it.

This cancer is most often found in young people. It’s more common in men than women.

Symptoms

Heart tumors can:

  • Affect blood flow to your heart muscle
  • Change blood flow through your heart to the rest of your body
  • Damage the system that controls your heart rhythm

Still, heart tumors don’t usually cause symptoms when they’re small. As a tumor grows, symptoms happen depending on:

  • Where it is in the heart
  • How big it is
  • If it has spread and where

Symptoms include:

But these are also symptoms of many heart diseases that are much more common than heart cancer, including:

Many heart cancers grow and spread quickly. They most commonly spread to the lungs, lymph nodes, and liver. This can cause many symptoms, along with those listed above.

Exams and Tests

Doctors usually see heart tumors on imaging tests like CT scans, heart MRIs, and ultrasound. These can show the size of the tumor and where it is in your heart.

A heart MRI is called cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR). This test helps doctors identify tumors that are not cancer and may not need to be removed. It also allows your doctor to look for signs that the tumor might be cancer, such as whether it:

  • Is in the right side of your heart
  • Involves more than one of your heart's chambers
  • Involves the big vessels near your heart
  • Is bigger than 5 centimeters across
  • Has unclear edges

If you have a tumor that looks like this, your doctor may do more tests. For example, if it can be done safely, you might need a biopsy. That's when your doctor removes a tiny piece of the tumor and tests it for cancer. It's the best way to know exactly what kind of tumor you have and how to treat it.

Treatment

There are not enough people with heart cancer to do clinical trials (studies in people) to find the best treatment. So there are no standard treatments. Instead, treatment is tailored for each person who has heart cancer.

The main treatment is surgery to take out the tumor. But that may not be possible if the tumor is large or in the left side of your heart. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy might help you live longer. Your doctor might try targeted therapies that are usually used for sarcomas found in places other than the heart.

Doctors have tried heart transplants, as well as transplants of both the heart and lungs, in a few people with heart cancer. Transplants helped some people live longer but did not work well overall. These surgeries aren't useful for heart cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

Survival Rates

These tumors are rarely found early or when they’re small. They often don’t cause symptoms until they’re large and have spread. By that time, they’ve usually caused a lot of heart damage. If doctors can't remove the tumor with surgery, only about 1 out of 10 people with heart cancer are still alive 9-12 months after diagnosis.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Texas Heart Institute Journal: “Primary Cardiac Tumors.”

National Cancer Institute: “Adult Soft Tissue Sarcoma Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version.”

Heart: “Cardiac tumours: diagnosis and management.”

Nature Reviews Cardiology: “Pathology, imaging, and treatment of cardiac tumours.”

Clinical Cardiology: “Primary Malignancies of the Heart and Pericardium.”

Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Imaging: “CMR in the Assessment of Cardiac Masses: Primary Malignant Tumors.”

Postepy Kardiol Interwencyjnej: “An atypical manifestation of primary cardiac tumor in a young patient.”

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