A diagnosis of cancer is devastating, and it also brings instant life changes for you and your loved ones. In modern cancer care, this often means advanced therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy. These have revolutionized cancer treatment, and as a result more people are surviving for longer periods of time.
However, in some cases, these therapies may increase your risk for developing new heart conditions, or increase the severity of existing heart problems.
“When cancer treatment affects your heart and blood vessels, this is known as cardiotoxicity,” says Madhulata Reddy, M.D., a cardio-oncologist.
Cardio-oncology is an emerging specialty, which features a collaborative team of cardiologists (heart specialists) and oncologists (cancer specialists). These experts focus on preventing, monitoring and treating cardiovascular problems in cancer patients and survivors.
Cardiotoxicity Is Closely Tied To Risk
“It’s important to note that not all cancer therapies cause heart or blood vessel damage,” Dr. Reddy says. “If you have certain types of cancer, which include blood, breast, kidney or lung cancer, to name a few, you may need treatments that have a higher risk for cardiotoxicity.”
The key word is “may.” Cancer is complex, and one size does not fit all when it comes to treatment. Also, even if your care team does recommend a potentially cardiotoxic therapy as part of your treatment plan, this doesn’t mean that you will get heart or blood vessel damage.
These effects only occur in some situations, and many of these are in people who have specific heart-related risk factors and existing heart disease.
How Cardiotoxicity Can Affect Your Heart
When a treatment does become cardiotoxic, it may cause damage in several ways, including:
- Arrhythmias, or issues with your heart’s natural rhythm
- Coronary artery disease, also known as blockages in the heart arteries
- Heart valve dysfunction
- Heart failure, or weakness in heart muscle
- Inflammation of the heat muscle
- Peripheral artery disease
Minimize Your Risk, While Getting The Most Effective Cancer Treatment
- Know your specific risk factors. Do you have an existing heart problem? Do you have other risk factors for heart disease such as a family history of heart failures or heart attacks? Are you preparing to get a stem cell or bone marrow transplant? If so, you may be at greater risk for developing cardiovascular complications, and should discuss this with your care team.
- If you’ve already started cancer treatment, don’t stop it. “You may be tempted to do this,” Dr. Reddy says. “But not all treatments have a higher risk for cardiotoxicity.” And even if a therapy is potentially cardiotoxic, it is a “potentially.” Not all treatments affect people the same way.
- Understand your care plan. Ask your cancer care team about the specific therapies in your cancer treatment plan. Do any of them carry a risk of cardiotoxicity? If so, what are they going to do to minimize this? And what are the steps for monitoring your heart health and potential cardiotoxic effects during treatment?
- Get screened before and during treatment. “Effective management of existing cardiovascular problems and any new complications during cancer treatment is key,” Dr. Reddy says. The earlier these issues are identified, the more likely they can be successfully addressed by a cardiologist, so your cancer treatment can continue. In addition, once identified, your cancer team may adjust your treatment dosage or recommend an alternative therapy, if necessary.
- Be vigilant after treatment. Survivors may also be at increased risk for developing cardiovascular conditions, months or even years after treatment. If you have undergone treatments that have a potential risk of cardiotoxicity, talk to your care team about the ongoing plan for monitoring you during survivorship. Also learn the symptoms and warning signs for conditions such as heart valve issues, clogged arteries, heart failure, arrhythmia and stroke, so you know when to seek attention.
- Pursue a heart-healthy lifestyle. Whether you’re just starting a cancer treatment plan, have been in treatment for a while or are a survivor, you can also take steps on your own to help minimize your risk of heart damage while getting the highest quality of life possible. This includes eating healthy, staying active, quitting smoking and managing your weight and stress levels.
It may seem overwhelming to add one more worry during a time when you’re already on overload from cancer treatment and trying to stay hopeful. But there is hope.
Cardiotoxicity is an active area of study, and researchers in both cardiology and oncology continue to explore and implement new therapies – as well as ways to prevent or reduce cardiovascular damage from existing treatments that carry a higher risk of cardiotoxicity.
To schedule an exam with a cardiologist, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). To make an appointment with a cancer specialist, visit henryford.com/cancer or call (888) 777-4167.
Dr. Madhulata Reddy is a cardio-oncologist. She sees patients at two Henry Ford Medical Centers in Bloomfield Township and Detroit.