Published on July 08, 2019

Cancer and your heart

Eddy Mizrahi

This is not a trade-off anyone wants to face: Cure my cancer but raise my risk of a damaged heart. Yet some of the very chemotherapy drugs that help people survive cancer may also weaken the heart—and, if that damage is severe, cause heart failure and heart rhythm problems.

Doctors call this treatment-related damage to the heart cardiotoxicity. And preventing it is why Mercy Catholic Medical Center – Mercy Philadelphia Campus, launched a crucial new cardio-oncology program in March. It brings together specialists in cardiology and oncology who work in concert to provide highly specialized care for patients treated with chemotherapy.

“Our goal is to deliver chemotherapy while protecting our patients’ hearts,” says cardiologist Eddy Mizrahi, MD, Medical Director of Noninvasive Cardiology at the Mercy Philadelphia Campus.

Sparing hearts

That specialized care starts when an oncologist carefully evaluates—and identifies—a patient whose heart might be damaged by cancer treatment. The next step for these patients is a thorough cardiac evaluation to screen for any preexisting heart problem chemotherapy could worsen.

If a patient is at risk for cardiotoxicity, an oncologist may suggest a different chemotherapy drug that is less likely to damage the heart. And a cardiologist may suggest medicine or lifestyle changes to further protect the patient’s heart.

Spotting early warning signs

Screening for heart problems includes an echocardiogram with strain imaging—a diagnostic tool that’s typically only available at major academic medical centers. Like other echo scans, it uses sound waves to take videos inside the heart. But a strain echo also uses state-of-the-art computerized technology to analyze specific segments of the heart and spot even the most subtle signs of change in heart function.

Cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy receive a baseline test and are monitored at regular intervals throughout their treatment.

“This enhanced echocardiogram can detect preliminary signs of heart damage, so we can intervene early—for example, with a change in medicine—and actually prevent the heart from getting weak,” Dr. Mizrahi says.

Also crucial for cancer patients: Screening for possible heart problems starts quickly—often, in fact, on the same day their oncologist tells them they need to be evaluated.