Merck Manual

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Cancerous Heart Tumors


Anupama K. Rao

, MD, Rush University Medical Center

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2021 | Modified Sep 2022

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 (see also Overview of Heart Tumors Overview of Heart Tumors A tumor is any type of abnormal growth, whether cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Tumors in the heart may be Primary (noncancerous or cancerous) Metastatic (always cancerous) Primary... read more ). Those that develop in the heart are called primary heart tumors. The most common primary cancerous heart tumors are sarcomas that develop from connective 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 sac that surrounds the heart (pericardium). Cancers may also spread to heart muscle and chambers through the bloodstream or through the lymph system Overview of the Lymphatic System The lymphatic system is a vital part of the immune system. It includes organs such as the thymus, bone marrow, spleen, tonsils, appendix, and Peyer patches in the small intestine that produce... read more .

Symptoms of Cancerous Heart Tumors

The symptoms of cancerous heart tumors are essentially the same as those of noncancerous heart tumors Symptoms A tumor is any type of abnormal growth, whether cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Tumors in the heart may be Primary (noncancerous or cancerous) Metastatic (always cancerous) Primary... read more 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 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 abnormal nervous system function).

Diagnosis of Cancerous Heart Tumors

Treatment of Cancerous Heart Tumors

  • 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.

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