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Heart cancer: Rare, but possible

Cancers like breast, prostate and lung are common. But is it possible for cancer to occur in your heart?

“It doesn’t happen often,” said Chady Leon, M.D., a Marshfield Clinic oncologist. “I mean it’s rare. It’s very, very rare.”

Regardless of how rare, Dr. Leon thinks it’s important to know the signs.

Heart tumors can be benign or cancerous

Grandma smiling with daughter and granddaughter – Chances of heart cancer
There are two types of tumors that can form in your heart.

Two types of tumors can form in your heart.

A myxoma tumor is a benign tumor usually found in the left atrium.

“It can cause some heart problems,” Leon said. “If it blocks a heart valve or causes an embolism, you can have shortness of breath and exertion, lightheadedness or syncope (loss of consciousness), sudden death or palpitations. Sometimes no symptoms will appear and a heart myxoma is incidentally discovered.”

Treatment usually is done by a cardiologist or cardiothoracic surgeon through surgery.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a heart cancer that is extremely rare. This cancer affects the heart’s red muscle and usually is an aggressive cancer. It also tends to affect children more than adults.

Tackling the tumor is challenging because usually it’s located in the ventricle, but can develop in any part of the heart because of the organ’s red muscle make-up.

“I’ve only seen one case of this cancer arising from the heart muscle in my entire career,” Leon said. “That’s how rare it is.”

Not many effective treatment options are available because with such a rare cancer, not many clinical trials have been conducted.

Depending on the stage of the cancer and patient characteristics, surgery is the most common treatment. If the cancer spreads, chemotherapy also could be a treatment option.

Are heart attack and heart tumor symptoms similar?

Symptoms for heart attacks and heart tumors slightly differ. Heart attack symptoms usually include pressure-like pain in the left chest radiating to the upper arm or jaw. Nausea, shortness of breath and sweating also are common symptoms.

“Although they can, symptoms usually don’t happen in this way with cancer,” Leon said. “There is not an acute set of symptoms. Symptoms with cancer are chronic, meaning they can last for weeks or months. They also can be episodic and recurrent.”

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