Published on March 01, 2019

Cancer & your heart

Sonela SkenderiLearn what doctors at Nazareth do to prevent cancer treatment-related heart problems

When you’re being treated for cancer, you may not be concerned about the health of your heart. But your doctors are.

At Nazareth Hospital, heart doctors and cancer specialists work together to try to prevent a condition called cardiotoxicity. That’s a term to describe side effects from cancer chemotherapy or radiation treatments that can sometimes damage the heart and potentially trigger conditions such as an irregular heartbeat or congestive heart failure.

To help reduce those risks, doctors at Nazareth may check your heart for problems before and during your cancer treatment.

“The key is to prevent disease potentially caused by cancer treatment,” says Sonela Skenderi, DO, FACC, a cardiologist at Nazareth.

Checking your risk

Most people being treated for cancer will not have heart-related damage as a side effect. So preventing it starts with evaluating your risk.

“We want to know how likely it is that you will get these kinds of conditions based on your risk factors,” Dr. Skenderi says.

She’s talking about traditional heart disease risk factors, such as being 65 or older; being overweight; having diabetes; smoking; having high blood pressure or cholesterol levels; or having a strong family history of heart disease.

You also may be at risk for cancer treatment-related heart damage if you already have heart disease. Your chances of experiencing effects of cardiotoxicity are also higher if you’re being treated with a specific type of chemotherapy drug that is known to potentially cause heart muscle damage, Dr. Skenderi says.

The most common warning signs and symptoms of heart damage from cancer treatment include:

  • Shortness of breath when you’re physically active or lying flat
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain, discomfort or tightening that occurs with physical activity
  • Swelling in your lower legs or feet

“Your symptoms may be subtle,” Dr. Skenderi says. “For instance, maybe you’re only able to walk a block now after your cancer therapy, but maybe three months ago you could walk a mile.”

Often people adjust, and then they don’t notice these changes, she adds.

That’s why it’s important to tell your doctor if you have any of the warning signs or symptoms of cancer treatment-related heart damage.

Monitoring your heart

Heart stethoscopeIf one of your doctors is concerned about your risk for heart damage, he or she may refer you to a cardiologist for screening before you start cancer treatment to check for heart problems. The test most often used is a special echocardiogram scan available at Nazareth Hospital.

If your test reveals a heart problem that puts you at high cardiotoxicity risk, your doctors can take steps to protect your heart during cancer treatment.

For instance, your oncologist may suggest a different chemotherapy drug that is less likely to cause heart problems. If you’ll be having radiation, your doctor may modify your radiation dose. If you already have a heart problem, you may also need to take medication. Every situation is different.

“Fortunately, cancer treatment has evolved, and oncologists now have multiple ways of treating cancer,” Dr. Skenderi says.

Even after cancer treatment, your doctors will watch you closely for potential signs and symptoms of cardiotoxicity.

“Cancer patients are living longer and doing better,” Dr. Skenderi says. “The last thing we want is for them to have a chronic heart condition because of their cancer treatment.”