05. PTC: Cancer Risks for Heart Recipients

05. PTC: Cancer Risks for Heart Recipients

Heart transplant recipients are at high risk for skin cancers and other less common cancers mainly due to their long term use of the immunesuppressant drugs required for life.    The incidences of cancer rise both with age (as it does in the general population) and with long term survival post transplant given the increasing years of that drug use.  Some life-style practices are also contributing factors such as smoking, lack of proper diet and no regular exercise.

The good news is that cancer diagnosis and successful early treatment is improving with each passing year.  Our goal then is to recognize and treat cancer early on when it is most treatable, and that is what this TRIO PTC educational web site is all about, helping you meet that early diagnosis and successful treatment.

Most heart transplant programs follow their patients for life and in semi-annual clinic visits, suggest and ask about whether the patient has seen a dermatologist on a regular schedule (usually at least twice a year unless other factors indicate closer surveilence).  While skin cancers are the most common, with studies reporting up to 50 times the risk for skin cancers vs. the non-transplant population, cancers types taken together remain the main cause of death in heart transplant patients, something that can be reduced in each individual if proper steps are taken as described below.

But first, watch and listen to the following short videos by transplant medical specialists to gain more understanding of your risk as a heart recipient and what you can do to reduce your risk.


With the ultimate goal of catching cancers early when they are very treatable, the heart transplant patients surviving the longest are those that closely adhere to their transplant programs testing regimen.  Once the patient is in long term recovery, typically by the 9 month to 1 year milestone post-surgery, annual and semi-annual testing will catch some cancers that are beyond the everyday symptoms that are obvious.  A PSA test for men, as an example, is typically part of the annual blood testing which will raise alarms for prostate cancer.  But equally important are others, like the eye exams and dermatology visits that are recommended but left to the patient to schedule and complete on their own.  Typically  the clinic visit will include a verbal questioning about those 'outside' careful vigilence practices, but it is up to the patient  to give honest responses and to take those actions.  Some patients, either because of the testing expense or being too busy, fail to follow the team's proactive advice and pay the price in cancer issues that come up too late for easy and effective treatment.

Action Plan

So what specific actions can the heart recipient take given this understanding of their higher risk for cancer post transplant?  

  1. First and most important, follow your transplant team's advice and recommended precautions and testing protocal, especially as it relates to staying out of the sun.  Transplant meds essential to long-term survival make the skin more sensitive to sunlight leading to skin cancers.
  2. keep a regular schedule based on your particular sensitivities of visits with a transplant specialized dermatologist.  As a transplant recipient, you are not the normal dermatology patient.  A doctor who specializes in treting transplant patients will know much better how to treat you and equally important, how to work with yoru transplant team in adjusting dosages and alternate medications to reduce the incidence of skin cancers.  The use of Mohs surgery, a special procedure that examines the lesion between initial incision and would closure to insure complete cancer removal, is a more common treatment with those speialists (and treatment can be pain free, so don't let fear get in the way of this routine examination!)
  3. If you want to know more details, there is a longer hour+ video that provides an indepth treatment of this subject supported by dramatic photos that while very graphic, serve to both show what to look for and motivate you to take action.
  4. Use the closing link below to move to the LOOK section where topics addressing the more common cancer symptoms are explained.
  5. After reading about the symptoms, use the LIVE section to understand how to prevent, diagnose, treat and live long in recovering from cancer.
  6. Under the site's LINKS section you can watch patient testimonials of transplant recipients living successfully with cancers of various types.  There you will also find 10 Best Practices for living with the risks of post-transplant cancer, as well as an extensive list of on-line reading and video resources related to this important issue.

Most Common Post-Transplant Cancer Types

Updated: 7/20/2019 JMG

Each type of organ transplant comes with cancer risks that may be different due to unique biology of that organ, or more commonly, due to the different drug protocals - both drug type and dosage - used for each type of transplant.  

In this LOOK...

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    DISCLAIMER: The content of this TRIO post-transplant cancer Web site is not influenced by sponsors. The site is designed primarily for use by transplant recipients and their supporters. The information contained herein should NOT be used as a substitute for the advice of an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other health care provider. The information provided here is for educational and informational purposes only. In no way should it be considered as offering medical advice. Please check with your transplant team or a physician skilled in cancer and your organ type if you suspect you are ill.