The Link Between Breast Cancer Treatments & Heart Disease Risk in Women

Feb 2, 2018 at 10:09 a.m. ET
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Breast cancer and heart disease are two of the biggest health concerns for women, but treating one condition may have a direct impact on developing the other. According to a new statement from the American Heart Association, some treatments for breast cancer may increase the patient's risk of heart disease. As a result, the organization encourages weighing the risks and benefits of different breast cancer treatments before deciding on a course of action.

Breast cancer survivors, especially women over the age of 65, are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than breast cancer, the AHA points out, emphasizing the importance of effectively taking heart disease risk factors into consideration when treating breast cancer.

More: Knowing Signs of a Heart Attack & Cardiac Arrest in Women Could Save a Life

“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. “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.”

For example, certain targeted breast cancer treatments can cause damage to heart muscle. And while in some cases, this damage is temporary, for others, it can be permanent. As a result, people who receive these targeted therapies need to be closely monitored for symptoms of heart failure and disease both during and following their cancer treatment. If medical professionals and patients are more aware of this connection, they can be on the lookout for signs that certain cancer therapies may be having an unwanted side effect and can change their course of treatment.

More: Yes, Young Women Can Have Heart Attacks Too

Radiation — another common breast cancer treatment — may cause coronary artery disease or blockages. Other breast cancer treatments, such as anthracyclines, can cause abnormal heart rhythms, which can be completely harmless for some patients but lead to life-threatening heart rhythms in others. Lastly, treatments like antimetabolites may prompt spasm of the heart arteries, which can mean chest pain symptoms but could result in a heart attack.

Fortunately, there's some promising news too. For example, the AHA says that a few small studies suggest that administering some common chemotherapy drugs in new ways — like, doing it slowly rather than all at once — may actually reduce the patient's risk of heart disease.

What to do

Lifestyle changes that help prevent or reduce the risk of heart disease are even more important for people being treated for breast cancer. The AHA has created a list of ways to improve your health behavior called Life’s Simple 7, which spells out specific ways to take care of your heart, including being physically active; achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight; eating a healthy diet; avoiding tobacco; and maintaining healthy levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

“Fortunately, with the advances in breast cancer treatment, there has been a growing number of survivors. However, during and after the treatment of breast cancer, having optimal control of heart disease risk factors is important, because older breast cancer survivors are more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer,” Mehta said in the statement. “And that's why Life's Simple 7 is important for all patients with and without breast cancer.”

More: Heart Attack Symptoms in Women Are Not What You'd Expect

According to the AHA, there are an estimated 47.8 million women in the U.S. who are living with cardiovascular diseases and approximately 3 million breast cancer survivors, yet many people still regard breast cancer as the primary threat to women’s health. The organization wants people to know that it is important to recognize these conditions in order to maximize the chances of survival.

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