Can cancer treatments lead to heart disease?

Published 3:41 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2023

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UK HealthCare

Patients with cancer often experience well-known, common side effects, such as hair loss during chemotherapy or skin issues during radiation. However, some patients will experience other cancer therapy side effects that don’t necessarily go away once treatment is complete. In some cases, cancer treatment may affect the heart, causing new problems or worsening existing ones.

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Cancer-induced heart problems affect nearly 10 percent of cancer patients. These problems, including conditions known as cardiotoxicity, can be caused by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiation therapy. Symptoms of these health issues can develop immediately during treatment, or they can develop decades after cancer survivors complete treatment.

Common symptoms of cancer-induced heart problems include:

• Chest pain

• Shortness of breath

• Leg swelling

• Irregular heart rhythm

When undiagnosed, these issues can be a major cause of death or morbidity for cancer survivors.

Patients with existing heart issues or have developed heart issues from their cancer therapies, patients who are currently undergoing cancer treatment, and cancer survivors, especially childhood survivors, should talk to their doctor about undergoing further testing to determine their risk.

All patients with a cancer diagnosis undergo rigorous screening for cardiovascular risk prior to cancer treatment. In addition to locating the cancer, providers must ensure the patients heart is healthy enough to endure the treatment.

One required test is an electrocardiogram, which evaluates the electrical activity of the heart. When a patient has an abnormal EKG, the patient may be referred to the cardio-oncologist.

Other risk factors, including high blood pressure, may also be managed by the cardio-oncologist.

Collaboration between the cardio-oncologist and oncologist is ongoing as they develop a treatment plan to destroy cancer while preserving heart function. Throughout cancer treatment and beyond, patients visit the cardio-oncologist to help ensure early detection of any change in heart health.

Amit Arbune, M.D., M.H.A., is director of Cardio-Oncology at UK HealthCare’s Gill Heart & Vascular Institute.