A breast cancer diagnosis is undeniably challenging. The arsenal of treatments that are recommended to reduce your risk of dying from breast cancer can unfortunately potentially lead to long-term health complications independent from the cancer diagnosis. One such concern is the impact of breast cancer treatment on cardiovascular health.
Why are breast cancer survivors at risk?
Chemotherapy and radiation, two of the primary modes of breast cancer treatment, can inadvertently affect the heart’s health. Some chemotherapy drugs are known to cause heart damage, a condition termed cardiotoxicity. Additionally, radiation therapy, especially when administered to the left breast (closer to the heart), can potentially harm heart tissues over time. The combination of these factors puts breast cancer survivors at an elevated risk of cardiovascular complications.
Key cardiovascular concerns for breast cancer survivors
- Heart disease: This includes conditions such as congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and cardiomyopathy. These conditions can develop years after treatment, emphasizing the need for long-term monitoring.
- Arrhythmias: Certain chemotherapies can lead to irregular heart rhythms, known as arrhythmias. While these are often not life-threatening, they may require treatment if they cause significant symptoms or increase the risk of more severe heart conditions.
- Pericarditis: Inflammation of the lining around the heart, known as pericarditis, is another potential side effect of radiation therapy. Symptoms can include chest pain and shortness of breath.
- Valvular heart disease: Radiation therapy can lead to progressive stiffening of the heart valves, leading to valvular heart disease, which can affect the heart’s efficiency in pumping blood.
Steps toward cardiovascular health
The thought of facing cardiovascular issues after breast cancer treatment can seem daunting. However, it’s important to remember that these risks can be managed with regular monitoring, a heart-healthy lifestyle, and appropriate medical interventions when needed.
- Regular cardiovascular monitoring: Regular check-ups and communication with your healthcare team can aid in the early detection of cardiovascular issues. Various diagnostic tests like EKGs, echocardiograms, and stress tests can help monitor your heart’s health.
- Lifestyle modifications: Leading a heart-healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease for breast cancer survivors. This includes regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and adhering to a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
- Medicines: In some cases, medications may be necessary to manage cardiovascular risk factors. This could involve drugs to control hypertension, manage cholesterol, or to mitigate the cardiotoxic effects of certain chemotherapies.
A new field: Cardio-Oncology
Recognizing the intersection of cardiovascular disease and cancer, a new specialty, cardio-oncology, has emerged. Cardio-oncologists are specialized cardiologists who work closely with oncologists to manage the heart health of cancer survivors.
Cardio-oncology is a relatively new field. The term “cardio-oncology” started gaining traction around the early 2010s. This was due to the growing recognition that as cancer survival rates were increasing, the long-term health of cancer survivors, including their cardiovascular health, was becoming more important. Today, cardio-oncology is seen as an important interdisciplinary field that bridges cardiology and oncology, aimed at optimizing care for cancer patients and survivors who are at risk for cardiovascular disease or are experiencing cardiovascular complications.
Though the risk of cardiovascular complications in breast cancer survivors is real, the medical community is committed to better understanding and mitigating this risk. Ongoing research and advancements in both cancer and heart disease treatment options continue to provide more tools for managing these interconnected health challenges.
Today, survivorship care plans increasingly include cardiovascular risk assessment and management strategies, ensuring a more comprehensive approach to the long-term health of survivors. As a breast cancer survivor, staying vigilant about potential cardiovascular risks is a crucial part of long-term survivorship care. Remember, your journey toward health and wellness continues, and every step you take matters.
Technological advancements, like the Outcomes4Me symptom tracker, are empowering survivors to take more active roles in their health management. Download the app to easily record anything that may be off regarding your heart health. The tool will provide a detailed log to share with your oncologist or cardiologist for a comprehensive evaluation.