Research spotlight: heart health for the cancer survivor 

Heart Health

Increased long-term survivorship following a cancer diagnosis is a result of improved screening and diagnostic techniques to detect a greater number of cancers earlier, combined with better and targeted treatment options. While this is a promising advancement, cancer survivors face unique chronic health issues, one of which is heart disease.  

Heart disease, a chronic health issue, has become a leading cause of death in some cancer survivor groups. Heart disease includes many conditions such as coronary artery disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, and stroke.  

Risk factors for developing heart disease overlap with some risk factors for developing cancer, including an inactive lifestyle, low quality diet, alcohol use, smoking, and obesity. Some cancer treatments can also cause toxicity to the heart leading to increased heart disease risk in cancer survivors. Combined, it makes it very important for anyone with a current or history of cancer to have heart health on their mind

What’s being done to better understand this new reality? 

Researchers are actively finding ways to estimate the risk, underlying causes, and potential ways to address how cancer and heart disease intersect. A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology highlighting this confirmed what is known so far: people who have had cancer are at greater risk and more likely to develop heart disease at an earlier date.  

Some findings indicate specific survivor groups may have a greater risk for heart failure (breast, lung, colorectal, and hematopoietic/lymphatic cancer), stroke (lung cancer), or coronary heart disease (hematopoietic and lymphatic cancers). This increased heart disease risk, distinct to certain cancer groups, may actually be related to the specific treatments, rather than the typical risk factors, such as sedentary lifestyle, low quality diet, and smoking. 

These important findings lay a foundation for future research. First, understanding how these findings apply to people from broader geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds can ensure groups facing higher risks can be better supported to prevent heart disease. 

Second, exploring the reasons why these cancer treatments increase risk for heart disease can guide resources to support prevention earlier. 

Finally, determining which lifestyle practices may best reduce risk of specific heart diseases can help develop more precise and effective changes for people to consider. 

Healthcare providers are in a unique place to begin developing health-promoting practices while the prognosis for long-term survival continues to grow.  

What can you do to support your heart health? 

Five positive changes you can make to support your own heart health: 

  1. Find ways to build relaxation into your day. 
  1. Stay active; 15 minutes of walking or biking is a good place to start. 
  1. Focus on balanced eating, which includes reducing processed foods, reducing salt and sugar and limiting alcohol. 
  1. Don’t smoke
  1. Stay on top of other health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. 

For more details on how to be “heart healthy” check out our blog post on Cancer and Heart Health and remember to talk to your doctor before making any major lifestyle changes. 

Links to referenced resources: 

Blake Langley, ND, LAc is a University of Washington postdoctoral fellow and Fred Hutch affiliate clinical researcher specializing in studying how integrative therapies may support people as they receive treatment for cancer. Blake currently works as a research acupuncturist on two active clinical trials and is leading a review on racial disparities in heart disease for patients with breast cancer. 

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