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Heart Health

18 June 2020

Why do we never hear about heart cancer?

Cancer tends to affect many parts of our bodies, but we seldom hear about cancer of the heart. This is why.

  • Heart cancer exists but it's extremely rare.
  • The fact that heart muscle cells are difficult to regrow and regenerate is a reason why malignant tumours of the heart are rare.
  • Even when a growth in the heart is classified as benign, it can still be dangerous

Lung cancer, breast cancer, brain cancer... We hear about so many types of cancers, and this is because each and every part of your body has the ability to grow abnormal, malignant cells.

But somehow, we never hear about "heart cancer". While heart disease is a common cause of death worldwide, we rarely hear about cardiac cancer. The truth is, that this type of cancer exists, but it is incredibly rare – so rare that it affects about 50 people in a million, according to Dr Salim Hayek, a cardiologist at the University of Michigan's Frankel Cardiovascular Center.

Why is heart cancer so rare?

While the heart is susceptible to a number of diseases, it is very rare for cancerous cells to grow in the heart. When cells grow and divide, a mutation can occur which can be genetic or because of environmental or lifestyle factors. When the mutated cells start to grow, they can form a cancerous tumour, which can then spread.

But cardiac muscle cells are so intricate and have such specific mechanisms and functions, that these cells can't simply divide and grow. It's what makes the heart so prone to damage in the first place. When the heart is damaged, it's hard for it to regenerate and repair itself. And this is the very reason why heart cancer is so rare.

This means that when there are abnormal cells present, they can’t recreate quickly enough to form a malignant tumour.

According to Dr Steve Xydas, chief of the Columbia University Division of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center and co-director of the Mount Sinai Heart Institute, another reason why heart cancer is so rare, is because it's not as exposed to environmental risk factors as other organs.

"There is less ability to expose the heart to carcinogens, as opposed to inhaling smoke to the lungs, for instance," he says.

It is possible for cancer to spread to the heart from other cancers, such as melanoma, leukaemia, lung cancer or breast cancer, even though it remains rare, and medical experts will refer to this as metastatic rather than "heart" cancer.

"These cancers, when metastasised, reach the heart commonly through the bloodstream, or by direct invasion through the surrounding tissues, like in breast cancer," says Dr Hayek.

Do heart tumours exist?

When a tumour does have a chance to grow in the heart, it is rarely cancerous, but even though it's benign, it should still be addressed as soon as possible as it could block the blood flow from the heart and cause danger. They are simply called benign because they don't have the ability to spread.

The most common type of benign cardiac tumour is atrial myxoma, but others include lipomas, fibromas rhabodomyomas and papillary fibroelastomas.

According to the British Heart Foundation, symptoms of a cardiac tumour depends on the location, size and type of tumour and can range from mild to non-specific, such as dizziness, fatigue, high fever or chest pains.

Some benign tumours require no treatment, but if they obstruct the heart's function, they might have to be surgically removed.

When is it a medical emergency?

Many heart diseases manifest silently, but heart failure can happen unexpectedly to almost anyone. Here's when to seek medical treatment urgently:

  • You are experiencing an unknown, sudden chest pain.
  • You are struggling to breathe.
  • Your chest feels heavy.
  • You faint and lose consciousness.
  • You feel weak and nauseous.
  • You are experiencing rapid heart palpitations.
  • Your heart palpitations and shortness of breath do not go away when you rest.

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