4 Ways People with Cancer Can Decrease Their Risk of Heart Disease

Cancer and its treatment can impact patients in a myriad of ways, often with secondary issues affecting the full scope of the body’s functions. In honor of February’s American Heart Month, we’re focusing on the way that the disease and care can affect cardiovascular health. The cardiovascular system, which encompasses the heart, veins and arteries, is responsible for the distribution of blood, oxygen and other nutrients throughout the major organ and muscle groups – making it one of the body’s most vital and valuable operations.

In a 2017 Journal of the American College of Cardiology study led by Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital vascular neurologist Dr. Babak Navi, researchers found a link between cancer and arterial thromboembolism, an obstruction of blood flow within an artery that can lead to heart attack or stroke. 

This retrospective data analysis involved about 560,000 “matched” patients — half with newly diagnosed bladder, breast, colorectal, gastric, lung, pancreatic or prostate cancer or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and half with comparable demographics and comorbidities but no cancer.

Dr. Navi and colleagues discovered that cancer patients’ risk of arterial thromboembolism is two times that of their counterparts without cancer in the six months that follow initial diagnosis, particularly for patients with advanced disease. Though no causal connection between cancer and heart complications could be determined, the research team noted two possible contributing factors: 1.) Cancer cells secrete substances that can “thicken” the blood and increase the likelihood of clotting, and 2.) Certain agents used in chemotherapy may be toxic to blood vessels and the heart. 

Because heart problems can influence patients’ treatment regimen and treatment success, as well as quality of life and overall survival, caring for the heart is of utmost importance, especially in the face of cancer.

“Cardiologists and oncologists are becoming more aware of the intersection of these two diseases, and we must have frank discussions with our patients about how cancer treatments can affect the heart,” says Dr. Erica Jones, a cardiologist and director of the HeartHealth program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. “The good news is that the strategies that prevent heart disease — being physically active, maintaining a healthy body weight, eating a healthy diet, avoiding tobacco and maintaining healthy levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar — will lower the risk of cardiac disease in cancer survivors.”  

Here are four cardio-protective strategies that Dr. Jones recommends people with cancer follow to help keep their hearts healthy and strong:   

1. Speak Easy

Talk to your oncologist about evaluating your heart function prior to shaping a treatment plan — a standard practice at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. In the event that your heart is not strong enough to sustain certain therapeutic agents or radiation near the chest, your physician may be able to propose alternative treatments that are easier on the heart. 

2. Get a Move On

A sedentary lifestyle can have damaging effects on cardiorespiratory function. But despite its power to reduce risk of heart disease and blood clotting, physical activity often takes a hit following cancer diagnosis. Be mindful to incorporate exercise of at least a moderate level, such as walking to an appointment, for example, into a daily routine.

3. Sidestep the Sweets

In addition to regulating eating habits with an emphasis on vegetable, fruit and whole grain intake and limited alcohol consumption, consider dissuading well-wishing friends and family from bringing calorie-dense meals and baked goods (that can lead to weight gain and put strain on the heart) during visits. 

4. Laugh Out Loud

Did you know that even your social life can impact cardiovascular health? Non-traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease include lack of a sense of purpose, social isolation and pessimism. Thus, seemingly small interactions like playing with grandchildren or laughing with friends can make a big impact on overall health outcomes.  

Patients at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital are uniquely positioned to benefit from our tertiary care model in which our physicians care for the “whole” patient by collaborating across multiple disciplines to offer a variety of expert health services within the same institution. This includes top-caliber cardiologists and neurologists whose expertise complements the cancer care provided to our patients.

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