Though rare, heart damage is a possible side effect of cancer treatment. Radiation, medications, and certain chemotherapy treatments have been found to increase the chances of cardiac issues and heart disease.

Some forms of cancer require radiation therapy. If your heart is in the area receiving radiation, you have an increased risk of developing a weakened heart muscle which impacts how the heart pumps (cardiomyopathy), scarred or blocked blood vessels (coronary artery disease), and heart attack. The protective covering of the heart may also become inflamed (pericarditis) or scarred (pericardial fibrosis). It’s also important to note that combining radiation and chemotherapy can further increase the risk of heart damage.

Chemotherapy treatments may also increase the risk of heart disease, including the weakening of the heart muscle and irregular heartbeat. An irregular heartbeat may occur after you begin treatment, but your heartbeat will typically return to normal when treatment ends. Certain types of chemotherapy may also increase the risk of high blood pressure and even heart attack.

If you experience any of the following symptoms in the months following your chemotherapy, please tell your doctor or healthcare team.

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Light-headed or dizzy
  • Feel abnormally tired
  • Swollen feet or ankles
  • Coughing or wheezing that doesn’t stop
  • Heart racing

Take heart! Though these risk factors are real, they are rare. Your doctor is aware of these risks and will take steps to reduce these risks as much as possible. Not all chemotherapy drugs carry the possible side effect of heart damage. Your doctor will monitor the amount of chemotherapy drugs you receive, and the potential impact on your heart. In recent years, radiation has become more targeted so less healthy tissue is damaged. Ask you healthcare team about your risk of heart damage.

Other Causes of Heart Damage

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy aren’t the only factors that increase the risk of heart problems. Others include:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol or triglyceride levels in the blood
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart problems
  • Smoking
  • Being inactive or not exercising regularly

To lower your risk of heart damage, eat a well-balanced, healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole-grains. Try to lead an active lifestyle. Ask your healthcare team what kind of exercise program is best for you. If you smoke, quit as soon as possible. Talk to your healthcare team about ways to quit.