What Breast Cancer Survivors Can Do to Maintain Heart Health

In 2014, more than 235,000 women (and men) in the United States will have a new diagnosis of breast cancer. Most of these individuals will be treated with chemotherapy or radiation or both. Although these treatments are necessary to save lives now, their side-effects can be particularly hard on the heart and circulatory system. Now that people are living much longer lives after treatment than they did 20 years ago, scientists are learning more about heart problems that can show up years after cancer treatment is over.

No matter how far out you are from beating breast cancer, now is a good time to pay attention to your heart health.

Helping Your Heart

If you’re a breast cancer survivor, you know the value of keeping and celebrating your health. As your own best health advocate, it’s important to discuss the state of your heart with your oncologist and primary physician (and maybe a cardiologist):

  • Talk to your oncologist and review the chemotherapy drugs and radiation that were used in your treatment so your doctor can assess your risk. Different drugs can have different effects on your body, while some may have few or none
  • Get screened early for coronary artery disease and know your other, more important, risk factors:
      o Family history of the disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal amounts of fat or cholesterol in the blood, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, age and pre-existing heart conditions
  • Manage the risk factors you can control

Cancer treatment and the heart

Most of us are aware of the immediate toll cancer treatments take on the human body: fatigue, nausea, hair loss to name a few. As chemotherapy drugs target fast growing cancer cells to kill them, they also can damage “good” cells. This toxicity can affect all the body’s systems including the circulatory and muscle systems – the systems of the heart. Some drugs used in treating breast cancer carry a higher risk for cardiac disease, such as anthracyclines (Adriamycin and others) and trastuzumab (Herceptin). Radiation, especially on the left side, can also damage the heart in ways that may not show up until years later.

Cardiomyopathy, or disease of the heart muscle, seems to be the biggest problem. When the muscle becomes weakened or stiff from toxic drugs, radiation, or other causes, the heart becomes weaker and cannot pump as it should. It may develop irregular beats (arrhythmias).

Breast cancer survivors and their doctors also need to be alert for signs and symptoms of heart failure, coronary artery disease, and other cardiovascular problems.

Cardiologists and oncologists working together

Cancer and heart doctors are teaming up to find solutions to the medical challenge of heart disease after breast cancer treatment. Along with researchers, work is being done to:

  • Understand the effects on the heart and circulatory system from treatments
  • Prevent or reduce toxic effects by refining and modifying existing cancer treatments
  • Encourage healthy behaviors that protect against heart problems
  • Develop screening protocols and personalized risk assessments to detect problems early
  • Monitor and treat cardiac problems effectively, before they get worse

BONUS READING: The Aurora Journal of Patient-Centered Research and Reviews provides an overview of drugs most commonly used to treat breast cancer and their potential adverse impact on the cardiovascular system.


Siegel R, Ma J, Zou Z, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2014. CA Cancer J Clin. 2014;64:9-29.

Ng R, Better N, Green M. Anticancer agents and cardiotoxicity. Semin Oncol. 2006;33:2-14.

Meet the Author

Charles A. Bomzer, MD is a medical oncologist for Aurora Cancer Care and Aurora Advanced Healthcare and a co-director of the Aurora Center for Cardio-Oncology Research and Innovation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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