When cancer and heart disease are combined, managing both conditions can be challenging. Because of age, many cancer patients have pre-existing heart disease when they’re diagnosed, while some may develop heart problems because of the drugs they're taking for treatment.
Chemotherapy drugs such as doxorubicin, epirubicin, idrarubicin and daunorubicin are called "cardiotoxic" because they weaken the heart muscle. Chronic cardiotoxicity can occur within a couple of weeks to as long as 10 years after treatment. Since many cardiotoxic drugs are used to treat childhood leukemias, heart health can become an issue for long-term cancer survivors.
Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)
Since the symptoms of CHF are very similar to cancer and other diseases like diabetes, obesity and cirrhosis, they often go unrecognized. The FACES system makes it easy to remember CHF symptoms:
- Fatigue: Have you been feeling more tired lately?
- Activity: Has your activity level changed?
- Congestion: Are you feeling a tightness or congestion in the chest?
- Edema: Do you have swelling in your ankles or lower extremities?
- Shortness of Breath: Are you having trouble breathing?
People with any or all of these symptoms should have an echocardiogram to confirm congestive heart failure.
Treating Cancer-Related Heart Problems
Any pre-existing heart disease must be addressed before chemotherapy treatment can begin. A healthy heart can handle aggressive cancer therapies better than a diseased heart.
Chemotherapy-induced heart failure requires careful monitoring during and long after treatment. A blood test that measures the levels of Brain Natriuretic Peptide (BNP) can help detect heart failure and determine the effectiveness of treatment.
ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers, two medications used to treat high blood pressure, are extremely effective in treating weak heart muscle. Pacemakers may be an option if your body does not respond to or cannot tolerate these medications.