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School of Medicine
Any type of abnormal growth in the body is called a tumor, whether it is determined to be cancerous (malignant) or non cancerous (benign). Malignant tumors are fast growing and likely to spread to other parts of the body quickly, while benign tumors are slow growing and often harmless depending on where in the body they are located.
Primary tumors are tumors that originate in the heart and are rare, occurring in one out of 2,000 people. Tumors that originate in another part of the body and then spread to the heart are called secondary tumors.
A noncancerous primary heart tumor (myxoma) usually develops in the left upper chamber (atrium) of the heart and tends to be more common among women. Cancerous tumors from the use of tobacco are the leading cause of deaths from cancer, more than any other environmental source.
With a heart tumor of any type, there may be no symptoms present. In other cases, symptoms may be either mild or severe. Often the symptoms of a heart tumor develop suddenly and resemble those of other heart diseases.
Symptoms of a primary heart tumor most often occur with a change of body position and may include:
- Difficulty breathing when lying flat or when asleep.
- Fainting, lightheadedness or dizziness.
- Palpitations or rapid heart rate.
- Chest pain or tightness in the chest.
More general symptoms mimic the symptoms of endocarditis and may also include:
- Fever or cough.
- Involuntary weight loss.
- Joint pain.
- Fingers that change color, or turn blue (Raynaud’s phenomenon), when pressure is applied.
- Nail curvature with enlargement of the finger’s soft tissue.
- Swelling of the legs, ankles or abdomen.
Causes of tumors vary, but generally are thought to be the result of abnormal regulation of cell division. Immune system irregularities that are incapable of detecting and fighting aberrant growths can also lead to tumors. Radiation, certain viruses, extreme exposure to the sun, tobacco, poisonous mushrooms and benzene can also cause tumors.
Nearly ten percent of all primary heart tumors (myxomas) are genetically inherited.
By avoiding things that cause cancer, the risk of tumors can be greatly reduced, if not prevented. Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. Reduce, limit or otherwise moderate heavy drinking, excessive exposure to the sun and radiation.
Cancer screenings can detect tumors at early, more treatable stages. Those tests may include mammograms for breast cancer, PAP smears for cervical cancer and colonoscopy for colon cancer.
The earlier a tumor is detected, the more likely a successful treatment outcome. Family members of patients diagnosed with myxoma are advised to undergo screening, since it is inherited.
People with heart murmurs, abnormal heart rhythms or unexplained symptoms of heart failure may be diagnosed with primary heart tumor after a full assessment of family history, symptoms and diagnostic testing. People with cancer in other parts of their bodies that present symptoms of heart malfunction are then tested for secondary heart tumors.
In the process of diagnosing a heart condition or a tumor, if one is suspected, one or more of the following tests may be performed:
- Blood tests.
- Chest X-ray.
- Echocardiogram. An “echo” uses ultrasound waves to produce a moving picture of the heart and heart valves.
- Electrocardiogram. An ECG or EKG records the electrical activity of the heart and shows abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias or dysrhythmias).
- Cardiac catheterization. This test helps identify the type of tumor.
- Heart MRI. Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, provides additional information for analysis.
- Tomography. A CT or CAT scan look for abnormalities.
- Coronary angiography. This test is not used often, but it can show an outline of a heart tumor that can be seen on X-rays.
Removing a noncancerous primary heart tumor surgically is an option and results in the elimination of the tumor. Other surgical procedures may be possible to assist heart function for larger noncancerous primary heart tumors.
Primary cancerous tumors are likely to be treated with radiation or chemotherapy, since they cannot be removed surgically. Sometimes drugs can be injected into the pericardial area of the heart to slow the tumor’s growth. Successful recovery is rare.