How can cancer treatment affect your heart?

November 24, 2021 Cancer Care

How can cancer treatment affect your heart?

Some cancer treatments can cause heart problems that are either short term or long-term. Although uncommon, there are serious side effects of some cancer treatments. Heart problems can affect treatment, lower a person’s quality of life and can cause death, rarely.

What are the symptoms?

  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Discomfort or pain in the chest
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen hands and/or feet
  • Nausea

What are the risk factors?

  • Chemotherapy
  • Chest radiation
  • Immunotherapy
  • Other targeted therapies
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure

Chemotherapy – can be highly effective in destroying tumours and reducing the risk of cancer. It uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells however high doses can potentially cause heart failure. This means the heart muscle is no longer as efficient as it should be at pumping blood around the body. It can weaken the heart muscle from a buildup of calcium and other chemical reactions in the body that release harmful free radicals.

Radiation Therapy – Radiation used in cancer treatment can cause problems in the heart and vascular (circulation) system. This can prompt a thickening of the blood vessels and heart valves, inflammation, and artery blockages.

How are heart problems diagnosed?

Physical exam– The doctor listens to your heartbeat looking for unusual sounds or changes to the heartbeat. This can indicate whether further tests are needed.

Echocardiogram (Echo)– An ECHO uses sound waves and an electronic sensor to look at the heart’s structure and function.

Blood tests– These tests can check whether there’s anything in the blood that might indicate heart failure or another illness.

Chest x-ray– X-rays can show changes or problems in the lungs that stem from heart problems. For example, fluid in the lungs can be a result of congestive heart failure.

Cardiac Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)– A cardiac MRI takes images of the heart and is used to diagnose a wide range of heart problems.

There are also many other tests that doctors may perform to find heart problems and identify the cause such as an angiogram, electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG) and multigated acquisition (MUGA) scan.

Getting Support

The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. Visit here to read more information about heart problems related to cancer treatment and how Macmillan can support you or your loved one.