Harvard Women's Health Watch

Research We're Watching: Radiation for breast cancer linked to heart problems

Research We're Watching

Radiation for breast cancer linked to heart problems

Radiation therapy is an effective treatment for breast cancer, but concerns have been raised that the radiation exposure women receive during this therapy might put them at greater risk for heart disease, especially because the radiation is delivered so close to the heart.

Researchers in Europe investigated this connection in more than 2,000 women who underwent radiation treatment for breast cancer between 1958 and 2001. The study, which was published March 14 in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that women's risk of ischemic heart disease (caused by reduced blood flow to the heart) began rising five years after their radiation treatment, and it continued for 20 or more years after this therapy. The more radiation the women received, the greater their heart risks—especially if they had radiation to the left breast, which is closest to the heart. The authors say today's radiation treatments deliver lower doses than in the past, and because their study included women treated more than 10 years ago, they can't know for sure how more current treatments might affect women's heart disease risk. Regardless, Dr. -Javid Moslehi of Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute stressed in an accompanying editorial that it's important for cancer and heart doctors to work together when caring for women who receive radiation for breast cancer.

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