Current breast cancer therapies can damage cardiovascular health, warn scientists

The photo shows a pink ribbon, which is an international symbol of breast cancer awareness.
The photo shows a pink ribbon, which is an international symbol of breast cancer awareness.

Health experts have warned that lifesaving therapies for treating breast cancer such as chemotherapy and radiation can have a negative impact on cardiovascular health, sometimes years after treatment.

The American Heart Association (AHA) said in a detailed cautionary statement, published in the journal Circulation on Thursday, that women diagnosed with the breast cancer should consider with great care the risks and benefits of any therapy that may hurt hearts.

However, it added that not all treatments entail these risks and that there may be ways to diminish or avoid altogether some of the potential side effects. It also stressed that survivors of breast cancer can enhance their chances of a long and healthy life by exercising on a regular basis and following a healthy diet.

“We want patients to get the best treatment for their breast cancer,” said Laxmi Mehta, a women’s heart health expert at Ohio State University, who led the panel that wrote the statement. “Everyone should have a conversation with their doctor about what are the side effects,” she added.

Many women generally regard breast cancer as the biggest threat to their health and the AHA statement seems to try to alter the mindset of women diagnosed with the disease that “cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the leading cause of mortality in women.”

The AHA’s first comprehensive scientific statement further warned that breast cancer survivors, who are 65 and older and were treated for their cancer, are more likely to die of cardiovascular problems than breast cancer.

In the US alone, some 48 million women suffer from some kind of heart disease, compared with 3.3 million women with breast cancer, the statement said, adding that an unprecedented number of women are surviving breast cancer yet encounter a risk of developing heart problems, partially because of their cancer therapies.

Many physicians have already praised the AHA statement. However, some others expressed their concerns that it might discourage women with high-risk cancer from receiving aggressive treatment.

“I don’t want those patients to think they should not do chemo, because then they will be more likely to die of disease,” said Deanna Attai, assistant clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. She added that physicians routinely examine the tumors of patients to assess the cancer’s risk of recurrence. “Those with a low risk can skip chemo,” Attai said.

While much of the information is known to oncologists, the statement can play the role of a helpful reference tool for patients as well as primary care, emergency room and other physicians, who treat women with breast cancer.

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