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Cancerous Tumors

by M. Jay Goodkind, MD

  • 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 echocardiography to confirm a heart tumor.

  • Surgery, and sometimes chemotherapy or radiation therapy, is used to treat cancerous tumors.

Cancerous primary heart tumors are extremely rare, accounting for about one fourth of primary heart tumors. The most common are sarcomas that develop from blood vessel tissue. Secondary heart tumors are far more common, but how common is difficult to determine.


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. Other symptoms include sudden development of heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, and bleeding into the sac that surrounds the heart (pericardium), which may interfere with the heart's functioning and cause cardiac tamponade. Cancerous primary heart tumors may spread (metastasize) to the spine, nearby tissues, or organs such as the lungs and brain.

Symptoms of a secondary heart tumor often include those caused by the original tumor and may include those caused by metastases elsewhere in the body. Cancers, such as lung or breast cancer, may spread to the heart by direct invasion, often into the pericardium; the heart may be compressed because cancers cause blood and fluid to accumulate. Cancers may also spread to heart muscle and chambers through the bloodstream or through the lymph system; these cancers may produce symptoms of heart failure.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The procedures used to diagnose cancerous heart tumors are the same as those used for noncancerous heart tumors. For secondary tumors, procedures are performed to find the original tumor, unless its location is already known. If tumors in the pericardium cause fluid to accumulate around the heart, that fluid may have to be drained. Other treatment is usually needed and depends on the type of tumor. Often, however, treatment requires surgery.

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