Breast Cancer Recurrence and Cardiovascular Disease

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

SEPTEMBER 02, 2020

Heart and Pink RibbonFor a long time, we have known that breast cancer treatment, specifically radiation to the left breast and some chemotherapy drugs, can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

A new study, as published in Nature Medicine, found that the risk of breast cancer recurrence increased by 59% and cancer-related death by 60% in women who had a heart attack, a stroke, or heart failure after a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Those are pretty high numbers.

The explanation is that these events had an immunosuppressive effect on a type of bone marrow cell that reduced the body's ability to identify and fight cancer cells. To complete the picture, there has long been evidence that cancer and cancer treatment can weaken the immune system and make it more likely that we may develop cardiovascular disease.

Other than being distressed and feeling victimized or overwhelmed or fatalistic, what are we do with this knowledge? It does seem a bit much that we might have to contend with the two biggest killers of Americans: cancer and cardiovascular disease. As my oncologist husband said: That is quite a double whammy.

The hard truth is that there is not a lot that we can do. It clearly is important that we are aware of this association between cancer and cancer treatment and the risk of cardiovascular disease. It is worth a conversation with your doctor about your individual risk and, perhaps, a consultation with a cardiologist who is well-informed about these issues. Your individual risk is related both to the specifics of your cancer treatment and your overall health and other medical concerns.

It is not helpful to worry too much about these possibilities. In terms of our cancers, we did the best that we could and received the best possible treatment. When faced with a new cancer diagnosis, hardly anyone worries too much about the future risk of some of the suggested care. Treating the cancer and reducing recurrence risk is what is important then and now.

The advice comes down to the usual litany: healthy diet, exercise, enough sleep, maintain a healthy weight. These habits help our overall health and may make a difference in our cancer health. At the least, we can be reassured that we are doing all that we can to stay well.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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