Being Well

Cancer and Heart Attacks: Is There a Connection?

Cancer treatments can be a double-edged sword. They effectively fight cancer, but can lead to heart problems, too. Is there a connection between cancer and heart attacks?

Cancer treatment has come a long way, and more people are now living cancer-free. But, at times, these breakthrough therapies can have side effects related to the heart.

Here’s what you need to know about the connection between cancer and heart attacks, as well as cardiovascular disease.

Cancer and Heart Health

While chemotherapy and radiation effectively combat cancer, these treatments can affect your cardiovascular system, even after treatment has ended. That’s because these cancer-fighting therapies can take a toll on your heart, depending on dosage and other factors.

According to Cancer.Net, some cancer treatments can lead to problems such as congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, swelling of the heart and abnormal heart beat. These heart issues can sometimes lead to heart attack or heart failure. Cancer and cardiovascular disease also share many of the same risk factors, according to an article in PubMed Central.

Risk Factors

Not all cancers or treatments cause damage. Cancer.Net notes that there are a few classes of treatment that can lead to heart problems:

  • Chemotherapy with certain drugs like anthracyclines and mitoxantrone.
  • Radiation therapy to the chest.
  • Some targeted therapy like Herceptin, Avastin and Nexavar.

Some cancer patients may also be at greater risk. The Circulation journal found that breast cancer treatments can negatively impact cardiovascular health. Additionally, one study cited in the National Cancer Institute found that the link between cancer and heart attacks was greater for people with lung cancer or advanced cancers. Older adults, women and children may also be more susceptible to heart-related problems.

What Patients Can Do to Manage Risk

There are a few things you can do to manage your risk of heart complications:

  1. Know your risk factors such as family history of heart disease, history of smoking or obesity, and lifestyle factors like exercise and diet. Note changes in lifestyle after treatment begins, too. If you have a history of heart disease or other risk factors, be sure to tell your oncologist so that they can bring a cardiologist onto your healthcare team.
  2. Ask questions about your medication and treatment options. Will it put you at risk for future heart problems? How does your doctor monitor your heart health? There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of complications, even if you have a history of heart disease. For example, your doctor may give other medications alongside your cancer treatment to protect your heart, or administer chemotherapy in lower doses to lessen heart damage.
  3. Take care of your heart before, during and after cancer treatment. Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment can be all-consuming. Your weight may fluctuate and you may lose cardiovascular fitness, which can increase your risk for heart-related problems. You may be able to manage your risk through exercise, a healthy diet, quitting smoking and reducing stress.

While side effects of cancer treatment can lead to heart problems, remember that doctors regularly monitor patients on drugs that may be more dangerous for the cardiovascular system. More data is needed to understand the link between cancer and heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems, like stroke. Talk to your doctor about your questions and concerns.

If you're undergoing cancer treatment, talk to your doctor about your risk of developing heart problems, and what you can do to manage your risk.

Learn More
Christine Yu