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Hands holding chest because of heart pain.

Can cancer treatment affect your heart?

Cancer treatment is a necessity for those affected by the disease. But some treatment options can actually weaken a patient’s heart and cause them to develop cardiovascular problems.

“We've gotten so good at treating cancers that we keep patients alive from a cancer standpoint, but we have to make sure that we are protecting their heart in the cancer treatment process so we haven’t made them a cardiac patient years after surviving cancer,” says Jyoti Sharma, M.D., a cardiologist at Piedmont Heart Institute.

Cancer treatments that weaken the heart

Two cancer treatments that affect the heart are chemotherapy and radiation.

“One of the main things we worry about is that some chemotherapy drugs we use to treat cancer can cause heart failure,” Dr. Sharma says. “Chemotherapy is medication we give to kill all the bad cancer cells. But when you inject that drug into the patient's body, it goes all over and it can affect the heart in some patients.” 

Radiation to the chest-area can also affect the heart.

“If a person has breast cancer, esophageal cancer, or lung cancer, they may get radiation to the chest,” Sharma says. “The heart is also in the chest. The current technology the radiation oncologists use is excellent and rarely does radiation reach the heart. However, if radiation goes to the heart, it can speed up the process of atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque and calcium in the heart arteries. It can also cause damage to the heart valves.”

Protecting your heart during cancer treatment

While the idea of developing a heart problem after cancer treatment may be frightening, Dr. Sharma says the risk is actually very small.

“I'd say the risk small, but it still exists,” Dr. Sharma says. “In the past, people just didn't know as much about cancer therapies causing cardiac side effects. Now, oncologists and cardiologists have a good working relationship. And if an oncologist knows that a particular drug has potential side effects on the heart, the patient gets serial heart testing throughout their cancer therapy.”

This could include echocardiograms or ultrasounds every three months to monitor the heart during chemotherapy.

“If we ever see a change on our end when we're reading or interpreting those studies, we call the oncologist right away and that's when we really get involved and start working together more closely,” Dr. Sharma says.

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