Moyo Wako: Cancer Treatment + the Heart


by Francis Nyachowe (ECCT Field Officer)

Cancer treatments can have a significant impact on your heart, ranging from weakening of the heart muscle to heart attacks or rhythm problems. Some chemotherapy drugs have also been linked to high blood pressure.

Fortunately, heart disease associated with chemotherapy is rare and not seen with every chemotherapy drug. As new treatments are developed, short term and long term side effects including heart problems are being closely studied.

Of the current anti-cancer treatments, the most commonly monitored drugs are a class known as anthracyclines (doxorubicin, daunorubicin, others), as well as newer medications such as trastuzumab (Herceptin), which may cause weakening of the heart muscle.

The chance of heart damage from anthracyclines is related to the total amount received during your lifetime. Your doctor will carefully monitor your use. Heart weakening from trastuzumab isn’t related to total lifetime dose and is often reversible.

If your doctor is considering using a chemotherapy drug that may affect your heart, you may need heart function testing before beginning treatment.

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During treatment, you may need periodic heart monitoring tests. If you have a pre-existing heart condition, such as cardiomyopathy, your doctor may suggest a different type of chemotherapy.

If you experience significant problems such as unexplained shortness of breath, chest pain or irregular heartbeats during or after chemotherapy, report your symptoms immediately to your health care team.

Radiation treatment can also come with risks. If the area of your body receiving radiation includes your chest (for example for breast cancer or lymphoma), you may have an increased risk of cardiomyopathy, valvular heart disease and heart attack.

The combination of radiation and chemotherapy together can generate a considerably higher risk of heart damage. However, your doctor can take steps to reduce these risks as much as possible.

We now need to create cardio-oncology clinics, to combat these devastating side effects.

We hope this has given you some useful insight into cancer treatment and the heart.

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