Ginny Levenback already leads a fairly healthy lifestyle — she doesn’t smoke, rarely drinks and follows a mostly vegetarian diet.
But when the 25-year breast cancer survivor was referred to MD Anderson’s Healthy Heart Program by Therese Bevers, M.D., during one of her regular checkups, she went ahead and made an appointment. Ginny wanted to see where she stood in terms of cardiovascular health and learn how she could improve her overall fitness.
“My idea of medicine is preventive,” Ginny says. “I will do everything within my power to stay healthy. But I didn’t really have any idea what my heart disease risk factors were. I hadn’t checked my glucose or cholesterol levels in a long time. I was usually focused on how much weight I should lose.”
Beginning with breast cancer
The MD Anderson Healthy Heart Program was created by Susan Gilchrist, M.D., in 2015 to help breast cancer survivors maintain or improve their cardiovascular fitness.
Her reasons for targeting that particular group were simple. First, chemotherapy drugs such as Doxorubicin and Sunitinib are known to either damage or weaken the heart. Second, studies show that women are four-to-five times more likely to die of something other than cancer. And finally, some women gain weight or develop other risk factors during cancer treatment that can negatively impact their health.
“Most women with early-stage breast cancer will die of heart disease,” Gilchrist says. “My goal is to make sure women are educated about their heart health and keep their hearts healthy long-term.”
The Healthy Heart Program is now open to any cancer survivor from any hospital, with a referral from his or her treating physician.
During the first private, 90-minute consultation, participants are screened for hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, tobacco use and obesity. Family history is also discussed to identify any patterns of early heart disease, and a fitness test is administered. Afterwards, participants receive data comparing their fitness levels to others their age. They also receive a personalized exercise plan, and both a 10-year and a lifetime assessment of their heart disease risk.
“A 59-year-old woman has a 39% chance of dying of heart disease over her lifetime if she only has one uncontrolled risk factor (e.g., hypertension),” Gilchrist explains. “That lifetime risk changes to only 8% if she gets her blood pressure under control. Our program empowers women to make changes that protect them from heart disease.”
To ensure they are meeting their fitness goals, participants speak regularly with an exercise physiologist. In most cases, they also follow up with their primary care physicians.
A prescription for exercise and cardiovascular health
Ginny’s results turned out to be a pleasant surprise. “I am in much better shape than I thought I was, from a heart health perspective,” she says.
The best part of the consultation was getting specific information on how to make the most of her workouts. Not only did Ginny learn her target heart rate and what it felt like to be there, she also received a personalized “prescription” for at least 200 minutes of cardio a week.
“Hearing it from a doctor and having it called a ‘prescription’ — there’s just something about it that makes me take it more seriously,” Ginny says. “I already do weight training twice a week, but I haven’t done cardio with the discipline or motivation that I need to.”
Knowledge is power
Now, Ginny is making lifestyle changes based on the information she received. She started with the purchase of a recumbent bicycle.
“If I’m going to exercise, I might as well do something that’s beneficial,” Ginny says. “I will definitely fill that prescription.”