Cancer can be tough on the heart in more ways than one


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

The death of Kara Kennedy, the only daughter of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, at age 51 from an apparent heart attack while exercising, was yet another tragedy for one of the country’s most prominent political families. It also offers a reminder of the possible long-term effects of cancer and its treatment.

In 2002, Kennedy was diagnosed with lung cancer that her doctors initially said was inoperable. Her father refused to accept that diagnosis, according to an article in the Boston Globe. He found doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who thought they could treat the cancer. They removed a portion of Ms. Kennedy’s right lung and then administered radiation and chemotherapy. She lived for another nine years, in apparently good health.

While the cause of Kennedy’s death has not yet been confirmed, the long-term effects of her lung cancer treatment could have played a role. Cancer survivors are often at increased risk of heart disease. That’s because the treatments used to fight cancer—drugs, radiation, and hormones—can damage the heart and arteries. (These are detailed in a Harvard Heart Letter article on cancer therapy and heart disease.)

If life were completely fair, cancer survivors would be exempt from future health problems. Sadly, that isn’t the case. A battle with cancer can create long-term emotional wounds. Cancer and its treatment can also leave behind physical problems that may take years to show themselves.

If you are fighting cancer, talk with your doctor about how your treatments may affect other aspects of your health. If you have successfully fought cancer, tend to your hard-earned survivorship by doing everything you can to keep yourself healthy. Pay attention to your body, watch your cardiovascular risk factors carefully, and establish good relationships with your doctors who can partner with you to help protect your future.

Even the healthiest lifestyle does not guarantee good health and long life for cancer survivors—or anyone else, for that matter. But it’s a good bet it will help.


  1. zoey

    Peculiar article, exactly what I was looking for.

  2. zoey

    cancer is so terrible!!

  3. MedEx Associates

    Informative and interesting article. We will definitely share this with our patients and staff.
    Thank You!

  4. Jeanette

    I’m going thru this now yes, it is totally scary to say the least.

    • Mona Rose

      Hello Jeanette, I am also just discovering I have radiation induced CAD on the LAD. I most likely got it from Linus, the linnear accellerator at BIMC. I have my first visit with “my cardiologist” this week.

      I wonder why some women, like Ms. Kennedy, don’t notice the signs and get checked out before the damaged artery gets serious. Maybe they are just plain tired of going in for check-ups.

  5. Paul

    This is good information. Cancer surely is the silent killer.

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