A Closer Look at Heart Cancers

Tuesday 29th September is World Heart Day, so we take a look at heart cancer – a rare form of cancer that can affect men and women.

Although heart cancer is rare, it is not unheard of. As with any type of cancer, the earlier the diagnosis, the higher the chance of a good prognosis, so it’s important to know what to look for.

What is heart cancer?

Heart cancer occurs when cells mutate and grow out of control, forming tumours in the heart muscle and/or surrounding structures. Tumours may be classed as non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).

Benign cardiac tumours are rare, although much more common than malignant cardiac tumours - around 75% of heart tumours are benign. Benign tumours don’t spread to other areas but can still grow large, sometimes blocking part of the heart or affecting its structure, which can make them difficult to remove.

Most of the time, both benign and malignant cardiac tumours grow in the left upper chamber of the heart (left atrium) at the atrial septum, which divides the two upper chambers of the heart. They can, however, develop in other areas of the heart and surrounding tissues.

Secondary Heart Cancer

Most cancers found in the heart have come from elsewhere in the body. These are classed as secondary or metastatic tumours, meaning they are a result of cancer that has spread from another organ. Primary tumours refer to cancers that have originated in that organ.

Because they are close to the heart, cancers like lung and breast cancer can spread to the heart or the pericardial sac - a thin sac which surrounds the heart and keeps it in place within the chest. Cancer can also begin in organs further away from the heart and spread to the heart via the bloodstream.

Cancers that may affect the heart include lung cancer, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, leukemia, lymphoma and melanoma and others

Risk Factors for Heart Cancer?

Both men and women can develop heart cancer, although malignant cardiac tumours are most commonly diagnosed in people aged between 30- 50 years old.

Around 10% of cardiac tumours are hereditary or develop as a result of other diseases.

Symptoms of Cardiac Cancer?

Symptoms will vary depending on the size and location of the tumour, and some heart cancers may cause no symptoms at all.

Malignant heart tumours may cause symptoms relating to obstruction of blood flow in the heart or a build up of fluid around the pericardium. This can lead to breathlessness, coughing, irregular heartbeats, dizziness, blackouts, and occasionally, sudden death.

How is heart cancer diagnosed?

Tumours are often detected via heart ultrasounds (echocardiograms) and CT scans. MRI scans are then commonly used to identify what type of tumour is present. A biopsy may also be performed, which involves surgery on the chest to take a sample of tissue from the tumour which will then be tested in the lab

How is heart cancer treated?

With any cancer, the earlier the diagnosis, the more likely it is that the cancer can be successfully treated.

Each patient’s medical team will put together a treatment plan that is unique to them. This is likely to include a combination of medication , chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Surgery may also be considered, although this can be complex.

Why funding for Rare Cancer Matters

In Australia, a cancer is classed as rare when it has fewer than 6 diagnoses per 100 000 people in the population.

Although Australia has one of the best overall survival rates for cancer in the world, this is sadly not the case for rare cancers. The incidence rate of rare cancers may be comparatively low, but because there are many types of rare cancer, when considered together they pose a significant health burden.

Research that could improve the outlook for individual rare cancer types attracts less interest and funding than research into more common cancer types. In addition to this, researchers often have limited access to clinical samples of a particular rare cancer type, which means their ability to learn more about how the cancer develops and responds to treatment is limited.

Clinical trials of new treatments for rare cancers are also often difficult to conduct as trials rely on access to large groups of patients who all have a similar condition.

Rare cancers are often diagnosed at a more advanced stage, as health professionals may not recognise the symptoms, meaning people with rare cancers are therefore more likely to die from their disease than people with more common cancers. In fact, rare cancers account for around 30% of cancer-related deaths in Australia.

The more research that can be done into rare cancers like heart cancer, the better the outlook for patients everywhere.

Donate today and make a difference to rare cancer patients today and in the future: DONATE

If you are worried about your heart health or have a family history of coronary cancers, the best thing you can do to safeguard your health and calm your nerves is schedule an appointment to see a doctor . If needed, they can refer you to a specialist for tests and further diagnosis. The fastest and easiest way to book healthcare appointments online is through MyHealth1st.


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