The heart of the matter: cancer and heart health

cancer and heart healthJune is the month we celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day. People everywhere come together to celebrate and honor those living with a history of cancer. The number of cancer survivors has increased to nearly 12 million. Survivorship can include many issues: follow-up care, coping with fear of recurrence, going back to work, and managing long-term side effects, including the connection between cancer and heart health after treatment is done.

Heart or cardiovascular issues after cancer treatment is one side effect that can occur with treatments such as radiation to the chest and certain anti-cancer agents like adriamycin, cytoxan, herceptin, avastin and gleevec. Other risk factors include being over the age of 65 at the time of treatment, having an existing heart problem and receiving high-dose chemotherapy.

These heart problems can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attacks
  • Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythym)

In the past, our primary focus was on treating and curing the cancer, and it still is the focus. However, after the cure, we have discovered that many of these treatments have accompanying side effects that can greatly impact quality-of-life. Understanding these side effects is the first step in preventing heart related complications. One avenue is targeting the cancer better to spare as much healthy tissue as possible. This is done with new and improved radiation techniques that locate and target the tumor more effectively. Research is now investigating the prevention of heart damage with the use of heart medication during intensive chemotherapy.

Having an evaluation with a cardiologist prior to initiating a known cardio-toxic therapy is a must. There are several cardio-oncology clinics that have recently been started around the country, including at the U-M Cardiovascular Center. These programs offer care from a cardiologist who is knowledgeable regarding the toxic effects of cancer treatment. Collaborating with the oncology team, they can provide guidance in preventing, monitoring and managing heart toxicities.

As a survivor, being informed about reporting any new symptoms such as chest pain, leg swelling and shortness of breath immediately to your doctor is important. Follow-up care and healthy living are also key points in cancer survivorship. This can include:

  • Regular monitoring of blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Strive to maintain a healthy weight (excess weight increases risk of heart disease and cancer recurrence)
  • Regular daily exercise (lowers blood pressure)
  • No smoking
  • Reduce stress (Stress is risk factor for heart disease)
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Limit Alcohol (alcohol intake can raise blood pressure)

Take the next step:

  • Learn about services at the U-M Cardio-Oncology Clinic.
  • Visit the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship.
  • Read about cancer survivorship from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an email.

    KimZThe Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer CenterThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.