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Can cancer treatments lead to heart problems?

PATIENTS WITH CANCER often experience well-known, common side effects, such as hair loss during chemotherapy or skin issues during radiation. However, some patients will experience other cancer therapy side effects that don’t necessarily go away once treatment is complete. In some cases, cancer treatment may affect the heart, causing new problems or worsening existing ones. 

Cancer-induced heart problems affect nearly 10% of cancer patients. These problems, including conditions known as cardiotoxicity, can be caused by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiation therapy. Symptoms of these health issues can develop immediately during treatment, or they can develop even decades after cancer survivors complete treatment. 

Common symptoms of cancer-induced heart problems include chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heart rhythm and leg swelling. When undiagnosed, these issues can be a major cause of morbidity or even death for cancer survivors. 

Patients who have existing heart issues or have developed heart issues from their cancer therapies, patients who are currently undergoing cancer treatment and cancer survivors, especially childhood survivors, should talk to their doctor about undergoing further testing to determine their risk. 

All patients with a cancer diagnosis undergo rigorous screening for cardiovascular risk prior to cancer treatment. In addition to locating the cancer, providers must ensure the patient’s heart is healthy enough to endure the treatment. 

One required test is an electrocardiogram (EKG), which evaluates the electrical activity of the heart. Patients with an abnormal EKG may be referred to the cardio-oncologist. Other risk factors, including high blood pressure, may also be managed by the cardio-oncologist. 

The cardio-oncologist and oncologist collaborate on a treatment plan to destroy cancer while preserving heart function. Throughout cancer treatment and beyond, patients visit the cardio-oncologist to help ensure early detection of any change in heart health and necessary treatment.

AMIT ARBUNE is director of the cardio-oncology program at UK HealthCare’s Gill Heart & Vascular Institute. 

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