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Heart-healthy nutrition for cancer survivors

Chemo drugs can cause heart issues

plate of healthy food

Cancer treatment can affect the heart, so heart-healthy eating is especially important for cancer patients.

Cancer patients may develop heart-related issues as a result of chemotherapy or radiation. Common health concerns include heart failure, arrhythmias, blood clots, high blood pressure and myocardial ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart muscle), which can lead to a heart attack.

Known as cardiotoxicity, the condition can show up during cancer treatment or even years after treatment for cancer. Studies have shown that up to one-third of cancer patients who receive chemotherapy drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) and anthracyclines will develop cardiotoxicity.

With a goal of minimizing heart damage caused by these treatments, the University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center recently launched Michigan’s first Cardio-Oncology Program. The program is one of only a handful around the world with scientists and physicians working together to address the effects of cancer treatment on the heart.

One of the program’s focus areas includes diet, exercise and lifestyle modifications following cancer treatment. Research shows that weight gain is associated with a higher chance of recurrence in cancer patients, particularly in breast cancer and prostate cancer patients. For this reason, patients are advised to maintain a stable weight during and after chemo or radiation treatments, making nutrition for cancer patients especially important. These focus areas also benefit heart health related to cancer treatment.

Divide your plate into thirds for healthy eating

The most important dietary goals, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, include making sure your plate is divided up into thirds, with 2/3 dedicated to plant foods and 1/3 to animal protein:

  • Two-thirds plant foods: Make sure that foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans always take up at least 2/3 of your plate. To maximize the variety of vitamins, minerals and protective “phytochemicals” (protective compounds found natural in plants) in your diet, choose colorful produce such as dark leafy greens, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, carrots and cantaloupe.
  • One-third animal protein: If you eat fish, poultry, lean red meat, cheese and other animal foods, make sure they take up only 1/3 or less of the space on your plate. (As much as possible, avoid eating processed meats like cold cuts, bacon, sausage and ham.) And try to go meatless several times a week, opting for a meal such as a veggie stir-fry or black bean burritos. You don’t have to become a vegetarian or give up the foods you love, though; it’s your overall pattern of eating that counts.

Facts about cancer and the heart

  • More than 2 million breast cancer survivors in the United States are believed to be at risk for cardiotoxicity.
  • Pediatric cancer survivors have a considerable long-term risk of heart disease. Chances of developing heart disease are 2 to 5 times higher than the general population, especially if they smoke or develop diabetes.
  • Cancer treatment and heart care can happen at the same time; oncologists and cardiologists are working together to minimize cardiotoxicity by preventing and treating cardiac problems during cancer treatment and by investigating different cancer therapies that won’t worsen heart conditions.
  • Diet plays a critical role in preventing heart disease related to cancer treatment. The “Phytonutrients for Heart Health and Cancer Prevention” chart features healthy food groups according to color. Patients are advised to choose at least one food every day from each of the different groups.

University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center Logo - blueThe University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit the Heart and Vascular page on UofMHealth.org.