Cancer and heart disease are linked

If you have cancer, your doctors are focusing on getting rid of it as soon as possible. That’s likely your primary focus, too. But it’s still important to pay attention to the rest of your health. 

During your cancer treatment, your oncologists create a custom treatment plan that’s right for you. But by knowing your individual risk factors and monitoring your symptoms, you can help them provide the best treatment. This can help in your fight against cancer and prevent other potential health problems.

“Just because you’re being treated for cancer does not mean that the rest of your health goes on hold,” said Geisinger cardiologist Farrukh A. Khan, MD. “In fact, cancer and cancer treatments can put you at risk for other health problems, namely heart disease.”

Cancer and your heart
Studies have shown that cancer doubles the chances of heart attack and stroke. Certain types of cancer may increase your risk more than others. For example, researchers found that people with lung cancer and advanced-stage cancers had the highest rate of heart attacks and strokes among all cancer patients.  

One possibility is that cancer releases chemicals that make it more likely for blood clots to form. These clots tend to occur in arteries, causing blockages and heart disease. 

But, as the cancer is treated, the levels of enzymes and proteins decrease along with the risk of heart disease.

Cancer treatment comes with its own risks
Radiation, surgery and chemotherapy are the three most common ways to treat cancer. While they may shrink or remove tumors, these treatments can pose risks to your heart, too.

Invasive surgery can dislodge a clot in the body and cause it to travel. Because of this, a clot can join with other clots and become larger—increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism.

Chemotherapy drugs can cause “cardiac toxicity” or damage to your heart. Your doctor will weigh your cancer and heart disease risk when choosing medications.   

Cancer treatments usually cause fatigue and require bed rest. However, a lack of exercise can cause blood clots to form, too. 

If you already have heart disease before getting cancer, talk with your oncologist because treatments for certain cancers, like lung cancer, can make your heart disease worse. 

How to avoid heart disease during cancer treatment

“Because cancer is often life-threatening, it’s important to stay focused on that treatment. But during your treatment, be aware of your overall health,” Dr. Khan said. “It’s still important to monitor your cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure or other risk factors for heart disease.”

A cardio-oncology program, which combines cancer and heart care, may also help you ensure your heart stays healthy during and after cancer treatment. 

After treatment, be sure to get as much exercise as your condition allows. Discuss your medications with your doctor and ask how they will interact with your existing health conditions. Your doctor can assess your heart disease risk based on your stage of cancer, any existing heart conditions and any risks associated with treatment.

Farrukh A. Khan, MD, is a cardiologist who has special interest in nuclear cardiology, echocardiography, cholesterol management, and women's heart health. Dr. Khan sees patients at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. To schedule an appointment, please call 800-275-6401.
A doctor talking with a cancer patient