Breast cancer radiation treatment can increase the risk of heart disease or a heart attack later in life. The information comes from a study that looked at the cases of 2,168 women in Sweden and Denmark.
The researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that the risk can begin a few years after the patient is exposed to radiation and can continue for 20 years.
They add that the risk also rises in proportion with the dose of radiation the heart receives. The results of the study are controversial, especially given the amount of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
There is also disagreement over the significance of the findings because newer techniques block the heart from the majority of exposure to radiation. Doctors say that breast cancer patients shouldn’t be worried about their heart disease risk. They add that radiation has improved cancer survival — a fact that is the top priority.
The chance of suffering a heart problem from radiation is also relatively small. About four to five in every 100 women over the age of 50 and who are free of heart risks will have a major cardiac problem by the age of 80. The study suggests that radiation treatment adds one more case.
But, for unhealthy women, it is a different story. In order to reduce their risk factor, women are encouraged to keep their weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure in check. Dr. David Slosky, a cardiologist at Vanderbilt University, believes that the study will “raise the antenna” about the need to do more to prevent heart problems in women who have been through breast cancer treatment.
While radiation runs the risk of harming the arteries, some chemotherapy drugs have been known to harm the heart muscle. While Slosky acknowledges that today’s lower radiation doses make it “less of a problem,” he believes the issue isn’t going to go away.
Researchers found in the study that 963 of the 2,168 women suffered a heart attack, needed an artery-opening procedure, or died of a heart artery-related cause in the years after their radiation treatment. The remaining women were similar patients who developed no heart problems.
The main difference between the women in the study and the women who have radiation treatment for breast cancer today is how much they receive. In the study, the average woman received five gray units on average, though the doses ranged from one gray unit to 28. Now, however, most women receive one to five gray units. This can help lower the risk, though it doesn’t make the risk go away completely.
Dr. Bruce Haffty, the associate director of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, suggests not forgoing radiation treatment because of the study, however. Despite the risk of heart-related problems afterward, radiation is a recommended lifesaving treatment. Doctors are also continually working to keep radiation from reaching other parts of the body.
Will the knowledge that breast cancer radiation increases the risk of heart disease later in life prevent you from undergoing the treatment?
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