Our body tissues are dividing all the time. This creates a risk of cancerous cell growth. Because the cells in the heart do not divide, heart cancer is a rare condition. But tumors, both cancerous (malignant) and noncancerous (benign) can form and lead to problems. At Cleveland Clinic, we treat about 20 patients a year with cardiac tumors.
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Types of Cardiac Tumors
Primary heart tumors grow in the heart and stay there. Just 10 percent are malignant. The most common type of primary cardiac tumor is called a myxoma. Myxomas most often develop in the upper left chamber of the heart (the left atrium).
Secondary cardiac tumors form somewhere else in the body and travel to the heart (metastasize). Most often, they start in the lungs, breast or kidneys. In very rare cases, metastatic cancers such as melanoma, thyroid or bone cancer can spread to the heart.
Diagnosing Cardiac Tumors
Most patients with cardiac tumors have no symptoms until the tumor becomes larger. In many cases, the tumor is found when the patient has an echocardiogram for another reason. If the tumor becomes hardened by calcium deposits (calcified), it may be seen on a chest X-ray. Most primary cardiac tumors are discovered when patients are in their 50s and 60s. However, they can be found in younger patients, too.
Patients with cardiac myxoma in the left atrium (the most common primary cardiac tumor) may develop symptoms. This is due to blocked blood flow through the mitral valve. The blood flow may be blocked all the time, or just when the patient is in a certain physical position (i.e., lying down). While many patients have no symptoms, if blood flow is blocked and there is increased pressure in the left atrium, it can cause shortness of breath, lightheadedness or a cough. The inflammation may cause a fever, and the patient may have joint pain or not feel well. Tumors that block blood flow can also cause a stroke, atrial fibrillation or blood clot.
Treating Cardiac Tumors
Many cardiac tumors create a risk of embolization. This means that part of the tumor or a blood clot can travel to other parts of the circulatory system. Therefore, the tumor is usually removed. Removal depends on whether the patient has symptoms, how big the tumor is, and if the patient is otherwise in good health. Removal is done using open-heart surgery. In many cases, the surgery can be done robotically or using a minimally invasive technique. During the surgery, the surgeon removes the tumor and the tissue around it to reduce the risk of the tumor returning. The surgery is complex and requires an experienced surgeon.
After surgery, the patient will need to have an echocardiogram every year to make sure that the tumor has not returned or that new growths have not occurred.
There are many other types of cardiac tumors such as fibroelastoma (an overgrowth of tissue in the cardiac valves), sarcoma (malignant tumor) and fibroma (benign fibrous tissue). Fibroelastomas are common but are removed only if they are large enough to cause symptoms, or if the patient has symptoms.
Learn more about robot-assisted cardiac tumor surgery
Learn more about minimally invasive heart surgery