When Anna was 40, she was diagnosed with a cancer tumor in her left breast. Fortunately, her cancer was in an early stage.
The decision was made to perform a lumpectomy, which removed the tumor along with some surrounding tissue — but her breast remained intact.
When the pathologist’s report came back, however, a few cancer cells were found in Anna’s lymph nodes, which indicated that the cancer may have spread further than originally thought.
Anna’s doctor recommended she undergo a course of radiation followed by chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer.
The treatment was successful and Anna went on with her life — until five years later, when she suffered a heart attack.
Anna had few cardiac risk factors, but when she told me her medical history, it was obvious that her heart attack had been caused by damage from the radiation and chemotherapy drugs.
But her cancer had required that kind of aggressive treatment, so there seemed no way to sidestep those risky treatments.
Today, there are measures that could have reduced this risk, and we now know that Anna should have been monitored for heart disease after her bout with cancer.
That’s because we now have a fuller recognition of the link between cancer treatment and heart disease. This growing recognition is primarily a reflection of our success in treating cancer, although much more needs to be done.
It’s understood that cancer treatments — including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal treatment, and even the newest targeted cancer drugs — although they are life-saving, come with detrimental effects.
Problems can occur during treatment (side effects), or be persisting (long-term effects).
What’s more, conditions may occur months, or even years after cancer treatment has ended. These are referred to as late effects.
Traditionally, oncologists (cancer doctors) have dealt only with short-term side effects. But now, with cancer survivors living longer, it’s become clear that treatments can have damaging long-term effects as well.
In fact, a whole new medical field, called cardio-oncology, is now emerging to bridge the gap between cardiac (heart) and cancer treatment (oncology).
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