Managing Treatments

The Effects of Radiation During Cancer Treatment on Future Heart Health

Radiation therapy to the chest increases the risk of heart problems in the future. Talk to your doctor about your potential risks.

Radiation is a common element of cancer treatment. In fact, more than half of people diagnosed with cancer receive radiation therapy, according to the National Cancer Institute.

This treatment is used to kill cancer cells, slow their growth, or shrink a tumor. Therapy is usually given in multiple sessions over the course of several weeks. Radiation has various side effects which depend on the location given. Chest radiation can increase the risk for heart problems in the future. It’s important to talk to your doctor to understand the risks, side effects, and benefits of radiation therapy.

Radiation and Heart Problems

Research has shown that high doses of radiation, particularly those delivered to the chest during breast cancer treatment, raises the risk of developing heart problems later in life. A review published in Frontiers in Oncology, explains that radiation therapy causes cellular damage which may lead to inflammation and fibrosis in the heart and blood vessels. This can increase the risk for coronary artery disease, valvular heart disease, arrhythmias and other heart problems.

Another study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that childhood cancer survivors who received radiation had higher rates of heart problems in later adulthood. People treated with high doses of anthracyclines combined with radiation therapy had even higher rates of heart trouble.

The dose of radiation, measured in grays, you receive makes a difference in your risk. Receiving doses of more than five grays greatly increases the risks for your heart. The American Cancer Society estimates that women treated for breast cancer receive between one and five grays. The good news, however, is that radiotherapy technology has rapidly advanced since the beginning of these studies. Radiologists now have many tools that allow them to use the lowest radiation dose possible and accurately target the cancerous tumor. This helps spare surrounding areas and lessen damage to healthy tissue.

It’s important to remember that the doses of radiation delivered during cancer treatment are significantly higher than those given through imaging tests. A standard chest CT scan, for example, delivers less than half a gray of radiation, and an X-ray gives off even less.

Other Effects of Radiation

Radiation therapy can cause other side effects such as pain, skin problems at the site, and swelling. Swelling, also called lymphedema, can be an ongoing effect of the treatment, as the American Society of Clinical Oncology describes. Because radiation causes cell damage, it can affect certain bodily functions, including your bladder and bowel control and fertility. This depends on the site it was delivered.

Another long-term effect is the slightly increased risk of developing a second cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the peak years to look for a new cancer is between 5 to 9 years after radiation treatment. After that time, your chances of going through a second diagnosis (because of radiation at least) tend to decrease.

Radiation is an effective treatment for cancer or to lessen symptoms. Advances in treatment options are designed to lessen the negative effects while treating cancer more effectively. Be sure to talk with your doctor about the dose, risks, and benefits of your particular treatment plan so you’re well prepared.

Radiation technology is evolving to lessen the side effects of treatment. Find out about how UVA is advancing the practice.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney