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Not everyone who undergoes cancer treatment will develop a heart problem. Still, if you or a loved one has cancer or a history or cancer, it’s important to be aware of the connection and to ask questions about heart health, too. Here’s why: 

People with cancer need lifesaving cancer treatments, some of which can damage the heart and blood vessels. It’s important to remember that these heart diseases can be managed with the help of the right health care team. Be sure to discuss specific cancer therapies or combinations of therapies with your care team so that you understand the potential side effects and work with your doctor to make informed decisions. 

Many people already have risk factors for heart or blood vessel disease when they find out they have cancer. These can make treatment-related heart problems even more likely. Risk factors are conditions or behaviors that increase your chance of heart problems. For example, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, or being overweight are considered risk factors for heart disease. 

Heart issues may appear years – even decades – after cancer treatment ends. Some cancer therapies set the stage for heart disease to develop later in life. This is potentially because of earlier injury or scarring to the heart muscle, lining of the blood vessels or valves. 

When undergoing cancer treatment, physical and emotional health can decline too. Coping with cancer can be overwhelming. Treatments, including surgery and cancer-fighting medicines, coupled with prolonged recovery times can mean lost muscle mass and decreased fitness. These effects can tax your body and heart. Ask what you can do to get back to some level of activity when you are ready. It may also help brighten your spirits.  

Cancer itself can also make certain heart problems more likely. There is overlap between the risk factors for cancer and the risk factors for heart disease. For example, smoking is a risk factor for both diseases.  Moreover, cancer can increase one’s risk of blood clots, which can lead to stroke and other complications. Researchers are also discovering many cancers and heart problems may be more connected than previously thought. 

Whether your heart will be harmed depends on how healthy your heart is going into treatment, your age and which cancer therapies you receive. However, even people who are young and fit can have heart issues with some of the treatments that are used, so be sure to talk with your care team.  Your doctor may want to measure your heart function before you start cancer therapy. This is done with an echocardiogram, an imaging test using ultrasound that shows moving pictures of your heart and how it is working. Echocardiograms and other heart tests as well as bloodwork can also be used during and after treatment to check for early signs of heart problems. 

  • Last Edited 03/15/2023