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Kim Neace

QUESTION: What should we know about cancer treatment and the heart?

There are an increasing number of cancer survivors today, which is partly due to the development of new therapies and strategies.

Receiving treatment for cancer can have long-term effects on the body, including the cardiovascular system. According to the American College of Cardiology, cardiovascular events are the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in cancer patients behind recurrent cancer. Medical oncologists take careful steps in managing and protecting the heart of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy and other therapeutic drugs.

Heart problems are uncommon, but can be serious side effects of some cancer treatments. These effects can occur days, months and years after treatment. Symptoms of heart problems include shortness of breath, dizziness, discomfort (or pain) in the chest, fatigue and swollen hands and/or feet.

The most common heart conditions caused by cancer treatment are congestive heart failure, low blood pressure, high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythm. According to the National Cancer Institute, adult survivors of childhood cancers are 15 times more likely to develop heart failure. The toxicities are also most common among five- to 10-year survivors of adult cancer.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that doctors identify patients at an increased risk of heart complications at initial diagnosis. This can be done by screening for traditional cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking and diabetes.

In addition to a complete physical exam, a patient should have a baseline cardiac test done known as an echocardiogram if they are to receive cardiotoxic medications. This test should be done before and possibly during treatment, depending on the medication. A complete and thorough medical history should be provided to one’s physician. This includes medications such as vitamins and herbal remedies.

Not all types of cancer treatment can cause damage to the heart. However, there are some treatments that put an individual at an increased risk. These include certain chemotherapies, radiation therapy to the chest, targeted therapies and hormonal therapies.

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Changing lifestyle behaviors, communicating with your physician and knowing the signs and symptoms associated with heart damage are just a few ways to keep your heart healthy during cancer treatment.

If you have questions or want to learn more, join us Feb. 13 at 5 p.m. at the Mission Hope Cancer Center Conference Room for a discussion on heart health led by Dr. Bruce Ourieff, cardiologist, and find out more on how to care for your heart during cancer treatment. Call 805-219-4673 to make a reservation as space is limited.

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Your Cancer Answers is a weekly column produced by Marian Regional Medical Center, Cancer Program. Have a question? Email it to

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