Harvard Heart Letter

Cancer survivors may face cardiovascular complications

Even the newer, targeted cancer therapies may harm the heart.

chemotherapy-cardio-complications
Image: Bigstock

About 14 million people in the United States are living with cancer, a number that reflects the steady rise in cancer survivorship in recent decades. In 1980, only about half of people with cancer lived five years after diagnosis. Today, five-year cancer survival rates are greater than 70%.

Unfortunately, many cancer-suppressing treatments can have undesirable effects on the heart and blood vessels. The increasing awareness of these effects—coupled with the surge of older people being diagnosed with and surviving cancer—has spurred a new specialty known as cardio-oncology. Experts in this burgeoning field focus on promoting heart health in people with cancer, both during and after their treatment.

Choosing the best treatment plan for these often-intersecting diseases is a delicate balance, says Dr. John Groarke, a cardio-oncologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Taking excessive caution to avoid cardiotoxicity may jeopardize the success of the cancer treatment. On the other hand, there's limited success in curing a person's cancer if the treatment leaves them with significant cardiovascular disease that will reduce their quality of life," he says.

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