A Kingston father of two young boys, diagnosed with a rare form of heart cancer in November 2020, is now recovering at home after undergoing six months of chemotherapy and lifesaving surgery by a Toronto heart surgeon.
Ross Mangan, 31, was rushed to Kingston General Hospital (KGH) after he fainted six months ago and was diagnosed with primary cardiac sarcoma.
A series of “lucky” events—according to his surgeon—allowed him to be home with his family last week after originally being given a few months to live.
“He’s such a fortunate man. He’s lucky to fall into the right system,” said his cardiac surgeon, Dr. Robert James Cusimano from Toronto General Hospital.
“If he’d come (to me) 10 years ago, I would have said there’s nothing we can do about it, (and) I wouldn’t have started him on chemotherapy. He’s also lucky that when I went in (to operate on his heart), we were able to get (the tumour) out,” Cusimano added.
Cusimano happens to be a leading heart surgeon treating primary cardiac sarcoma in Canada.
At their first meeting, Cusimano did a thorough check on Mangan—to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else. “When he came to me, he was not an operative candidate,” he said.
“When I saw him, (the cancer) was very advanced. He wouldn’t have seen Christmas,” added Cusimano.
Cusimano explained that Mangan’s heart had water around it due to the tumour, compressing his heart, and the pressure caused him to faint.
Talking about the day he fainted, Mangan said that, initially, he was hesitant to go to the hospital, as he’s had a sore throat and some chest discomfort for a few days beforehand. He thought he might have had COVID-19.
“I got a COVID test, it came back negative. When I was going to sleep, the pain was so bad on my chest. When I stood up, I fainted. My wife heard (me fall) and called the ambulance immediately,” Mangan added.
At 31, Mangan thought it was nothing more than low blood sugar, even though he wasn’t diabetic.
The diagnosis, according to Mangan, was shocking. “In your mind, you’re at home, healthy, working. Within two days I was told I had less than a year to live, with heart cancer.”
There’s no history of heart cancer in Mangan’s large, extended family tree. “This is a very rare, specific type of cancer. My doctor said it’s not genetic, that it truly is the luck of the draw,” Mangan said.
Spreading the word on primary cardiac sarcoma
Word of mouth played a factor in Mangan’s successful treatment.
“One of the doctors at KGH knew (about Dr. Cusimano’s work). I believe he worked with him 20 years ago and said he was going to reach out to him as a referral,” said Mangan.
Dr. Cusimano took a biopsy of the tumour and started him on chemotherapy right away. Given a 30 per cent chance that chemotherapy would work, Mangan pushed ahead and finished treatment on Thursday, Apr. 1, 2021.
“If (Mangan) responds to (chemotherapy), we would operate, if he doesn’t respond, we wouldn’t operate,” said Cusimano.
Luckily, Mangan did respond well to the treatment, after which he was booked on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 for the six-hour surgery in Toronto.
The heart surgeon said “we’re trying to change the world.” He believes word of mouth is important, so that people all over the world know that there is hope for those diagnosed with primary cardiac sarcoma.
Cusimano estimates that there are between 5,000 and 15,000 who suffer from the condition all over the world. “Many just give up, and some (needlessly) die, not knowing there’s a way. (Most doctors have) no idea how to approach a tumour like this.”
Every year in January for the past few years, Cusimano holds a “Toronto Cardiac Tumour Conference.” He leaves the lectures online, to be accessed for free, for patients and other doctors needing information.
His aim is to amass an international registry of patients. “I want to find and get people from all over the world to join this registry… we want a lot of people and doctors to know about it. To me, to give a lecture is what I want, (that way) we can give them a plan on how to assess and treat it,” Cusimano said.
Cusimano has spent over 25 years as a heart surgeon. It’s a “gradual learning,” he said. He acknowledged that “there is no specialty in tumours of the heart. Right now, it doesn’t exist in the world.”
For more information on Dr. Cusimano’s program, or to register, visit https://www.cpd.utoronto.ca/cardiactumours/
Other than a 10-inch scar on his leg from the bypass, and another 10-inch incision on his chest, Mangan admitted that he feels “better now than I did after the chemotherapy. Honestly, it’s more uncomfortable than painful.”
One thing he’s thankful for is the support of his wife, Diana. With two young boys at home, Sam, 4, and Liam, 3, his wife shouldered the brunt of the work.
“She’s everything for me. The surgery is hard, but during the six months of cancer treatment, she did everything for me and our kids. She was quite upset herself and was going through her own challenges, her own emotional needs, but she was still able to help me and the kids out,” Mangan said.
“I don’t know how I could have done it without her. I’m very lucky,” he added.