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.
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):
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:
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.