Some of my patients want to know if cardiotoxicity is common. In general, less than 10% of patients with cancer develop heart problems after receiving these therapies. But, if heart complications develop, the impact can be significant.
Some chemotherapy medicines can cause heart problems that include:
- Damage to the heart muscle that may lead to heart failure, meaning the heart no longer pumps blood as well as it should
- Disruptions to the heart’s electrical activity, which may cause abnormal heart rhythms
- High blood pressure, which can harm many organs throughout the body
- Myocarditis, which is a dangerous inflammation of the heart muscle
Radiation therapy to the chest region can increase the risk of:
Patients are more likely to have heart problems related to their cancer treatments if they have pre-existing heart disease or one or more risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol. Patients can also be at higher risk for heart problems if they’ve had chemotherapy or chest radiation in the past.
How we help protect our patients’ hearts
Patients with cancer may benefit from an evaluation by the specialists in our Cardio-Oncology Program if they:
- Are going to receive a treatment known to cause heart damage and
- Have risk factors like those I mentioned above
Most people are referred to our team by their oncologist before or during cancer treatment. We also evaluate and treat people who develop heart problems after their cancer treatments.
Our team's top priority is to help protect patients' hearts so that if they’re still in treatment, they can safely complete their vital cancer therapy. In the vast majority of cases, we’re able to do just that. And most people who do experience heart complications during or after their cancer treatments are able to fully recover their heart’s function.
What we offer to help prevent and treat cardiotoxicity
Because we have a dedicated Cardio-Oncology Program, we have an array of options available to help prevent cardiotoxicity and to treat it when it does occur.
Those options include:
- Helping patients manage conditions that put them at risk for heart problems (diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol levels, for example) so that their heart is less vulnerable to damage from cancer treatments.
- Prescribing medications that can help protect the heart from damage during cancer therapies.
- Prescribing medications that improve the heart’s function to patients who already have heart disease.
- Recommending dietary changes and other lifestyle changes, if necessary, to help keep a patient’s heart healthy during cancer treatment.
- Monitoring the cardiac function of patients when they start chemotherapy or radiation therapy using a variety of imaging tests to look for early signs of heart problems and treat them if they develop.
We work closely with oncologists to coordinate the safest, most effective therapies possible.
For instance, an oncologist may be able to prescribe a different chemotherapy drug for a patient that’s less toxic to the heart if that patient is already at risk for cardiotoxicity or has already developed it. Or, a patient with cardiotoxicity may be able to pause their cancer treatment for a bit — while we get their heart problem under control — before resuming their cancer therapy.
It may not always be possible to adjust cancer therapies in these ways and still achieve the same treatment results for cancer, which is why we coordinate care with oncologists. This is part of what makes our efforts to prevent or manage heart damage especially vital. It’s deeply gratifying to offer this life-changing care to a person who has, or had, cancer.
Get the treatment you need to protect your heart
At Temple, we place great care and emphasis on collaboration across departments. And in managing the health of your heart, that’s key.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, your oncologist may refer you to our Cardio-Oncology Program for an evaluation. You can also ask your oncologist for a referral.