Cancer treatments may impair heart function or cause long-term cardiac damage

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While cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation are critical to treating cancers, research shows that some of these treatments may impair heart function or cause long-term heart damage. Although these cardiovascular risks should not deter life-saving cancer treatment, understanding how treatment impacts the heart and early signs of cancer-related cardiotoxicities may help patients and their physicians select the best treatment plan.

Understand the cardiac effects of cancer treatment. Therapies such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and other novel targeted treatments that are used to combat many cancers have the potential to weaken the heart muscle or cause abnormal changes in the electrical conduction of the heart. Some of these adverse effects may happen within days to weeks, while others may occur months to years after completion of cancer treatments. Each person's risk for these complications is impacted by their treatments as well as their heart health and risk for developing heart disease before, during and after cancer treatment.

The symptoms of cardiotoxicity are consistent with the typical indicators of heart disease. Symptoms of a potential heart issue related to cardiotoxicity may include shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, fluid retention in the legs, and distention of the stomach or dizziness.

Several health conditions, your lifestyle, and family history can increase your risk for heart disease as well. Behavioral risk factors include unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, unhealthy weight, tobacco use, stress and excessive alcohol use. Risk factors that cannot be controlled include family history of heart disease, and age. The older you become, the more likely you are to develop cardiovascular disease.

There are heart protection strategies for cancer patients and survivors. These may include cardiac medications and procedures to better regulate the heart rhythm or pulse, monitoring the cardiac function of patients when they start chemotherapy or radiation therapy using a variety of imaging tests or recommending dietary changes and other lifestyle changes, if necessary, to help keep a patient's heart healthy during cancer treatment. The Cardio-Oncology Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the state's only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in collaboration with RWJBarnabas Health, offers this type of specialized care at several of its locations across the state.

The bottom line: before, during and after cancer treatment, heart health is critical. Along with seeing a cardio-oncologist on your cancer care team, the American Cancer Society recommends protecting your heart health during and after treatment by eating a healthy diet, getting recommended cancer screenings, regular exercise, getting to and staying at a healthy weight, keeping your follow-up appointments and taking care of your emotional health.

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