While cancer treatments are becoming more and more effective at fighting the disease, sometimes chemo side effects can have an unfortunate result: heart damage. Researchers have made great progress in developing cancer therapies with fewer side effects, and in producing treatments that directly target tumors. Still, some cancer treatments have the potential to harm the heart, arteries, and other parts of the body.
Can chemotherapy damage your heart?
Injuries to the heart and arteries as a chemo side effect are uncommon, but can be serious. In some cases, the damage can appear immediately during therapy; other times it doesn’t become apparent for years.
Other cancer treatments, including radiation and some drugs given to breast cancer patients, both during and after treatment, including tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors used to help prevent recurrence, also have been linked to a slightly increased risk for heart disease.
A few of the agents used in targeted therapy, for example, osimertinib which is used to treat lung cancer, could affect the function of the heart. While the incidence of these side effects is usually less than 1 percent, it can be significant for those who are affected. Targeted drugs used in treating breast cancer—specifically HER-2 targeted agents trastuzumab and pertuzumab—also may affect the function of the heart. Immunotherapies typically do not negatively impact heart function.
It’s important to discuss your treatment and its side effects with your Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers oncologist and your care team. In most cases, your physician will recommend a physical examination before your treatment begins, in order to find any existing conditions that could interfere with your treatment, or put you at greater risk for serious side effects, including heart damage. In some cases, your oncologist may recommend that you see a heart specialist during or after treatment.
Chemo side effects and your heart
It’s not clear why some people are affected with more serious side effects. But, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, you may be more likely to experience heart problems during or after treatment if you:
- Are 65 or older.
- Received high doses of a group of drugs known as anthracyclines, which can be used to treat breast cancer.
- Had high-dose radiation to the chest area.
During your treatment, your Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers care team will carefully monitor your health, and check for signs of serious side effects. However, if you experience any of the following symptoms, contact your RMCC care team right away:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Swelling in legs, hands, or feet
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
How does cancer affect the heart
Some of the potential conditions that could result as side effects of cancer treatment are temporary and will most likely go away after treatment is completed. Others may become permanent and require treatment.
Some of the conditions that may possibly result from cancer treatment include:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease
- An irregular heartbeat
- Damage to heart valves, including a narrowing or stiffening
- Swelling or scarring of the outer membrane of the heart, which is known as the pericardium
- Myocarditis, a swelling of the heart
- Cardiomyopathy, condition in which the heart muscle becomes thick or rigid
- Congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart can’t pump blood as it should
Options to Reduce Heart Damage
If you develop signs that treatment may be affecting your heart, you and your oncologist can discuss options, including:
- Trying a different drug. Not all therapies are associated with heart problems, and there may be effective alternatives available for you.
- Reducing the dose.
- Taking medications to help protect your heart.
- Altering radiation therapy. A lower dose may be one option, exploring a different technique for delivering the radiation treatment may be another.
Taking certain heart-protecting drugs while you are on chemotherapy or taking medications to prevent cancer recurrence may help prevent heart damage from cancer treatment, according to the American Heart Association.