Life-saving treatments can increase your risk of heart disease. A cardiac oncologist can help keep your heart healthy while battling cancer.
Decades of improvements in research and treatment – along with greater awareness of the importance of early detection – have enabled most people diagnosed with cancer to live longer and fuller lives. According to the latest statistics from the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for all cancers has risen to a record 67%, while the US cancer death rate fell 29% between 1991 and 2017.
This is good news in all respects, but as many survivors can attest, their battle with cancer often has long-term effects on their overall health. Cancer therapies increase the risk of heart disease and increase the need for specialty areas of cardio-oncology, an emerging area of cardiovascular medicine that mitigates the effects of cancer treatment on the cardiovascular system.
Cardio-oncologists work with patients with heart disease or at risk of developing heart disease before starting cancer treatment, with patients who develop heart disease during cancer treatment, and cancer survivors whose hearts have been damaged by chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, and the rate of cardiovascular disease increases with the onset of menopause (due to decreased levels of estrogen) and after breast cancer treatment. This is important because breast cancer is the most common diagnosis of non-skin cancer in American women, and one in eight women is likely to develop the disease in their lifetime.
The double-edged sword of cancer treatment
Even if you’ve never had cardiovascular problems before your cancer diagnosis, you may need to see a cardiac oncologist because chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and certain targeted cancer therapies can damage your heart.
Cardio-oncologists are studying the cardiotoxicity of certain treatments and are aware of their potential to increase the risk of heart disease. For example, chemotherapy has been linked to increased episodes of cardiomyopathy (weakening of the heart muscle), arrhythmias, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and blood clots.
A cardiac oncologist may offer frequent imaging and screenings, as well as blood tests, during your cancer treatment to look for signs of heart problems and modify your treatment as needed.
If you are diagnosed with cancer and have heart disease or are at high risk of heart disease, a cardio-oncologist will include your cancer treatment along with your cardiovascular care. Your history of heart disease and risk factors for heart disease will be taken into account when your doctor decides which chemotherapy drugs to give and the doses to take.
Ask your cardiac oncologist to educate you about the possible effects of chemotherapy drugs and radiation on your heart and how issues are treated during and after your cancer therapy.
Reduce your risk
Be sure to consider your heart health during your routine wellness visits so that you can address any existing issues – regardless of the cancer diagnosis. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, diet and lifestyle changes, and medication if necessary, can control both of these conditions. In fact, some studies suggest that drugs for high blood pressure and high cholesterol can be protective during chemotherapy.
The risk factors for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease are remarkably similar. The two major risk factors that women have some control over are diet and exercise. Other important risk factors include age (especially after menopause), being overweight or obese, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, familial heart disease, and smoking.
To lower your overall risk for cancer and heart disease, focus on making diet changes that include more fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins and whole grains, and less salt and saturated fat. Following a heart-healthy diet like the DASH diet that is low in salt and saturated fat, and avoiding processed foods, saturated fat, and refined sugars can help you lose weight. Other important steps include quitting smoking and following the American Heart Association guidelines for 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
Research shows that women who exercised routines prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer were less likely to experience cardiovascular problems years after cancer treatment. Because the risk of heart failure, myocardial ischemia (decreased blood flow to the heart), and high blood pressure is increased in cancer survivors, these steps are critical.
Working with your cardiac oncologist to care for your heart before, during, and after cancer treatment can help improve your heart health and quality of life. After surviving cancer, you deserve it.
This resource was created with the assistance of Merck.