Radiation and chemotherapy often used in the treatment of breast cancer can increase a woman’s risk for cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association said in a statement – the first scientific statement from the nonprofit organization on cardiovascular disease and breast cancer.
“For older women, (cardiovascular disease) poses a greater mortality threat than breast cancer itself,” the statement read. “We hate to trade one disease for another.”
Breast cancer and cardiovascular disease have several overlapping risk factors including age and obesity. The fact that some breast cancer treatments could have a negative impact on women’s heart health is concerning. The American Heart Association isn’t saying women with breast cancer should forgo chemotherapy and radiation, but women should try to prevent or reduce their higher risk of developing heart disease by maintaining a healthy diet, exercising and monitoring their blood pressure and cholesterol.
The risk of heart disease with cancer therapies is not news to oncologists. They have seen this issue before, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society. “We have taught and seen these problems… Let’s give these drugs and treatments to people who need them – the risk-benefit is more favorable – and let’s do all we can to determine who is unlikely to benefit from the drugs and spare them the risks.”
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, researchers found that exposing the heart to radiation during radiotherapy could increase the rate of heart disease among breast cancer patients later in life.
Anthracyclines, a type of chemotherapy, have also been shown to weaken the heart muscle and lead to heart failure, which can be irreversible. Anthracyclin-induced congestive heart failure symptoms can show up three to five years after treatment.
Experts say the American Heart Association’s statement is long overdue, and should help raise awareness about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially for women cancer survivors.