Cancer Treatment and Heart Failure: What’s the Link?

Certain cancer therapies can increase your risk for heart failure. Here’s what you need to know.

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Getting a cancer diagnosis is hard enough. And when you learn that certain cancer treatments may increase your risk of other serious health conditions, you may worry whether the cancer treatment is worth those additional risks.

Radiation therapies and chemotherapy can increase patients’ risk of developing cardiovascular problems, but it’s also important to know that these cancer treatments also increase your odds of surviving cancer.

“It’s important for us to understand as doctors and as patients, that there can be risks associated with these therapies,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center. “My job is to [put you] in a position where you’re as safe as possible to undergo the therapy so you can beat the cancer.”

How Cancer Therapies Affect the Heart

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy can increase a patient’s risk of heart failure, heart rhythm abnormalities, and heart attack. That’s because radiation and certain cancer drugs, such as antineoplastic and anthracycline chemotherapy agents, can damage or weaken the heart and blood vessels, or cause problems with clotting or blood lipids (cholesterol and fatty acids).

Some of these cardiovascular effects can come on during the course of cancer treatment; others can strike years later after the patient is cancer-free.

How Doctors Protect Your Heart During Cancer Treatment

Because of the risks associated with cancer treatment and the heart, cardiologists and oncologists have created a subspecialty called cardio-oncology, which aims to protect patients’ hearts during cancer treatment. “We work with the oncologist on trying to adjust the doses of radiation therapy, or the frequency and amount of chemotherapy, and correlate that with their risk of having heart failure,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

To prevent and lower a patient’s risk of heart failure, cardiologists may also perform tests that diagnose heart failure before a patient even feels heart failure symptoms. They may also suggest certain lifestyle modifications to reduce heart failure risk.

“I want a patient’s blood pressure to be well controlled, I want their diabetes to be under control, I want them to be at an ideal body weight so that I can put them in the safest position possible to undergo their cancer therapy and to decrease their risk of having a problem down the line with heart failure,” says Dr. Bloom.

Learn more about other heart failure risk factors here.