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Cancerous Heart Tumors

By Siddique A. Abbasi, MD, MSc, Assistant Professor of Medicine; Attending Cardiologist, Director of Heart Failure, and Director of Cardiac MRI, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University; Providence VA Medical Center and the Cardiovascular Institute

Cancer can develop in the heart or, more commonly, spread to the heart from another organ.

  • People may feel short of breath or faint, or they may have fever or weight loss or develop heart failure or abnormal heart rhythms.

  • Doctors use imaging studies to confirm a heart tumor.

  • Surgery is not helpful, but chemotherapy and sometimes radiation therapy may be useful.

Only a few cancers develop in the heart. Those that develop in the heart are called primary heart tumors. The most common primary cancerous heart tumors are sarcomas that develop from blood vessel tissue.

Most cancerous heart tumors originate in some other part of the body—usually the lungs, breasts, kidneys, blood, or skin—and then spread (metastasize) to the heart. Metastatic heart tumors are 30 to 40 times more common than primary heart tumors but are still uncommon.

Cancers in the chest, such as lung or breast cancer, may spread to the heart by direct invasion, often into the pericardium. Cancers may also spread to heart muscle and chambers through the bloodstream or through the lymph system.


The symptoms of cancerous heart tumors are essentially the same as those of noncancerous heart tumors and vary depending on the tumor's location. However, the symptoms of cancerous tumors tend to worsen more quickly than those of noncancerous tumors because cancerous tumors grow much faster. Symptoms include sudden development of heart failure (causing shortness of breath and fatigue), abnormal heart rhythms (causing palpitations, weakness, or fainting), and bleeding and fluid accumulation into the sac that surrounds the heart (pericardium), which may interfere with the heart's functioning and cause cardiac tamponade.

Symptoms of a metastatic heart tumor occur along with symptoms caused by the original tumor and by any metastases elsewhere in the body. For example, people who have lung cancer that has metastasized to the heart may have trouble breathing, fatigue, and coughing up of blood.

Primary cancerous heart tumors themselves may spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body. Metastases may be to the spine (causing pain), nearby tissues, or organs such as the lungs (causing trouble breathing and coughing up of blood) and brain (causing confusion).


  • Imaging studies

The procedures used to diagnose cancerous heart tumors are the same as those used for noncancerous heart tumors, including echocardiography, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

For metastatic heart tumors, further testing is done to find the original tumor, unless its location is already known.


  • Treatment of symptoms

  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy

If tumors in the pericardium cause fluid to accumulate around the heart, that fluid may have to be drained.

Because cancerous heart tumors—both primary and metastatic—are almost always incurable, treatment is designed to reduce symptoms. Depending on the type of tumor, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both are used.