Virgil Abloh had cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare, painful cancer that affects the heart

The influential designer, who kept his diagnosis a secret for more than two years, believed that clothes were 'totems of identity that sat at the nexus of art, music, politics and philosophy.'

Maija Kappler 3 minute read November 29, 2021

Virgil Abloh at the 3rd edition of the Vogue Fashion Festival in Paris on Nov. 9, 2018. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters)

Designer Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton and founder of Off-White, who was widely considered one of the most influential voices in the world of fashion, died on Sunday. Fans around the world were shocked to hear that Abloh, who had just turned 41, had been suffering from a rare form of cancer for more than two years.

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Angiosarcoma is a rare form of soft tissue sarcoma, a broad term used to describe cancers that start in soft tissue like muscle, tendons, fat, lymph and blood vessels, and nerves. Angiosarcoma is a cancer that affects the lining of blood vessels and lymph vessels, according to the Mayo Clinic. When it occurs, it’s usually on the skin.

But cardiac angiosarcoma, the form of angiosarcoma that impacts the heart, is even more rare. According to Johns Hopkins University, it involves a tumour that starts in the heart, or starts somewhere else and spreads to the heart. Most cardiac angiosarcomas occur in the heart’s right atrium, and obstruct blood flowing in and out of the heart. That process can be quite painful, the Mayo Clinic says.

It can also obstruct blood flow in the rest of the body. In some cases, very small pieces of the sarcoma can break off and travel, which may prevent blood from reading other organs. If it travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke; if it travels to the lungs it can cause respiratory distress.

It’s generally treated with chemotherapy and radiation. There aren’t many statistics available about cardiac angiosarcoma because it’s so specific and so rare, but the prognosis is generally “poor,” according to a 2015 study. The five-year survival rate for non-metastatic angiosarcoma — meaning a cancer that didn’t spread beyond its initial area — is about 35 per cent. Researchers blamed the cancer’s “aggressiveness and multifocality” for that low number.

An angiosarcoma that occurs in the skin is usually accompanied by visible symptoms that look like bruises or lesions. An angiosarcoma in the organs, like the heart, are often discovered because of the pain they cause. Some other symptoms of cardiac angiosarcoma include fever, weight loss, fatigue, night sweats, and fingers that turn blue when pressure is applied.

Unfortunately, “once a cardiac sarcoma has progressed to the point that symptoms begin to occur, it has often metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body,” according to Johns Hopkins. That means it’s very difficult to offer effective treatment.

Angiosarcomas make up about 1 to 2 per cent of all sarcomas, which, as a group, make up about one to two per cent of all cancers.

For Abloh, “clothes were not garments,” New York Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman wrote, but “totems of identity that sat at the nexus of art, music, politics and philosophy. He was a master of using irony, reference and the self-aware wink (plus the digital world) to re-contextualize the familiar and give it an aura of cultural currency.”

He brought streetwear into the world of high fashion, and made a name for himself through memorable partnerships with Nike, Evian and Kanye West. He also established a scholarship to encourage Black students to work in fashion.

Abloh believed deeply, according to his Instagram tribute, “in the power of art to inspire future generations.”

Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor with Healthing. She can be reached at

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