Radiation therapy has been shown to reduce the number of breast cancer deaths and the risk that the disease will return. But new research suggests that it could also be causing health risks down the road. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers explored the link between radiation exposure and its effect on the heart, particularly an increased risk of heart disease. During treatment, beams of radiation can go beyond the breast to the heart and its arteries, which can cause an increased risk of narrowed arteries, heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms, and other concerns. According to the study, a patient’s risk of cardiovascular problems can increase by up to 7.4 percent with each dose of radiation. So, should breast cancer patients be worried?“ For most patients, radiation treatment is much more beneficial than it is harmful,” explains Thomas Frazier, MD, breast surgeon at Main Line HealthCare Breast Surgical Specialists and Bryn Mawr Hospital. “The patients who are most affected by these findings are those who have a history of heart problems.”
Thanks to improved technology in recent years, doctors have been able to further reduce the amount of radiation that can affect the heart. But for patients who do have a history of heart problems, either personally or within their family, Dr. Frazier says the most important thing to do is talk to your physician about your concerns and follow a heart healthy lifestyle during your cancer treatment and the years following.
“If you have a pre-existing heart condition, don’t forego treatment altogether. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Let them know about your health history and discuss your options for treatment,” he says.
In the years following your treatment, you may make regular appointments with a cardiologist to monitor your heart health, including contributing factors like blood pressure and cholesterol.
In addition to radiation, chemotherapy can also contribute to heart issues. Some chemotherapy drugs can increase your risk of heart failure, and chemotherapy treatment can sometimes lead to early menopause and weight gain, another risk factor for heart disease.
Still, Dr. Frazier emphasizes that not seeking treatment for breast cancer is more dangerous than the potential of any heart problems as a result of treatment. Besides talking to your doctor, he encourages patients to improve their heart health by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking cigarettes.