Cancer is one of the most treated diseases in the U.S., with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reporting over 1.6 million new cancer cases. Although cancer treatments have made great strides at increasing cancer-free survival, cancer patients should be aware of potential side effects from their treatments, particularly those affecting vital organs such as the heart.

Post-cancer treatment, individuals may experience cardiotoxicity, posing risks to the function of the heart and overall health. Understanding and managing these potential complications is essential for cancer survivors. It is important for cancer patients to know the potential side effects to catch them early – the earlier they are found the easier treatment will be.

Cardiotoxicity is a condition characterized by heart damage resulting from certain cancer treatments including radiation, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy drugs, making it harder for the heart to pump blood throughout the body. Certain types of cancer treatments have a higher risk for cardiotoxicity.

Cardiotoxicity can appear during treatment or even years after remission. Identifying it can be difficult, as its symptoms are often nonspecific, such as fatigue, shortness of breath and may be similar to side effects of chemotherapy, radiation therapy or deconditioning. Because of this, it is important to keep an eye out for anything abnormal or out of the ordinary.

Possible symptoms of heart problems related to cardiotoxicity may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Swelling and fluid retention in the legs or abdomen
  • Loss of endurance or unexplained fatigue

People who may have a higher risk of cardiotoxicity from cancer treatment include:

  • People 65 and older, young children and women
  • People who received high doses of anthracycline chemotherapy
  • People who had high-dose radiation therapy to the chest
  • People who had a combination of anthracycline chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the chest
  • People with two or more co-existing cardiovascular risk factors including hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, obesity or a history of smoking.
  • People with already diagnosed heart disease.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a sure-fire way to eliminate cardiotoxicity. There are some advanced technologies for radiation treatment, such as that at the Todd Cancer Institute that can use lasers to target therapy within micromillimeters of accuracy sparing heart and healthy tissues. It is important to do your research and see what offerings your cancer center has to prevent your heart from this exposure. Extensive research is underway in helping to detect early cardiotoxicity before permanent injury occurs and is already available for some cancer therapies. Also be sure to speak to your doctor to balance the risk and reward of treatment and if there is method to reduce any of the cardiovascular risk.

Patients seeking advanced cardiac imaging to check their heart can visit the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center. The Institute offers advanced cardiac imaging to find heart disease sooner and help patients determine which treatment is right for them.

Learn more about advanced cardiac imaging and treatments.