Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctors: Can radiation damage the lungs?

Q. I once had Hodgkin's disease and was cured with radiation to my chest and neck. Now, 30 years later, I have shortness of breath. Is there any way to reverse the radiation damage to my lungs and heart?

A. We are seeing more and more patients whose lives have been extended by cancer treatments, only to suffer late cardiovascular complications. Radiation can damage the lungs, causing stiffness and difficulty absorbing oxygen into the bloodstream. Nothing can undo that damage. Radiation can also accelerate atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries and damage the heart valves. Since shortness of breath is your main issue, narrowing or leaking of one or more heart valves could be the cause. In this case, surgery might help quite a bit.

Your physicians may not be able to tell how much of your shortness of breath is due to lung damage and how much is due to cardiac issues. Fixing your heart issues may improve your symptoms. Your lung disease would make heart surgery a bit more risky, of course, and this is something that you should discuss with your physicians.

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