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New Study Links Breast Cancer Treatments, Heart Disease

February 27, 2018

Older women who are breast cancer survivors are at a higher risk of dying from heart disease according to a new study by the American Heart Association (AHA). The study says that certain cancer therapies can cause damage to the heart and urges providers to take treatment approaches with the patient’s cardiovascular risk factors in mind.

“Any patient who is going to undergo breast cancer treatment, whether they have heart disease at the beginning or not, should be aware of the potential effects of the treatments on their heart,” said Dr. Laxmi Mehta, chair of the writing group for the new scientific statement from the AHA. “This should not deter or scare patients from undergoing breast cancer treatment, but should allow them to make informed decisions with their doctor on the best cancer treatment for them.”

The three main reasons for heightened risk for cardiovascular disease for breast cancer survivors according to the AHA are:

  • Pre-existing heart risk factors, such as uncontrolled hypertension or high cholesterol that goes unchecked through their breast cancer treatment
  • Exposure to chemotherapy and radiation that damage the heart
  • An increasingly sedentary lifestyle that leads to weight gain during the treatment phase

“As we’ve made great strides in modern cancer therapy, we’re realizing that we need to focus on the cardiovascular health of cancer patients and survivors.  It used to be that cancer had a much worse prognosis so paying attention to the cardiovascular effects years later was less important,” says Dr. Eric Oligino, Director of Cardio-Oncology for Hartford HealthCare.     “[The sub-specialty of] cardio-oncology focuses on cardiovascular health of all cancer patients.  Our goal is to find out which patients are most at risk of having complications and monitor that before, during and after treatment.”

Oligino says heart disease and certain cancers share many of the same risk factors for patients.

“It’s important to identify who is at high risk of developing cardiac complications due to baseline cardiovascular risk factors like hypertension and diabetes. And, many new cancer patients have existing heart disease as well,” says Oligino.

Oligino says the report from the American Heart Association shines a light on the need to consider cardiovascular health when planning treatment strategies for all cancer patients. 

“People are doing so well with their cancer therapies that we now need to focus on them into survivorship and think of their cardiovascular health five years, ten years, twenty years down the line.  That’s a testament to the amazing work the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute is doing.  Now, in coordination with the Heart and Vascular Institute we can focus on the patient’s cardiovascular health so they can enjoy the benefits they’ve received from beating cancer,” Oligino says.