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Breast cancer and heart disease share many risk factors, including age, tobacco use, diet, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. Women usually notice symptoms of cardiovascular disease about 10 years later than men do.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime is 2.4% at age 50 years (1 in 42), 3.54% at age 60 years (1 in 28), and 4.09% by age 70 years (1 in 24).
Surviving breast cancer is a great milestone for any woman. Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end there. Women who have had breast cancer also face the risk of developing heart issues.
Various campaigns have been launched to educate people about heart disease and breast cancer. February is Heart Health Month and October is Breast Health Awareness Month.
Why Breast Cancer Is Connected to Heart Disease
Studies have established a link between breast health and heart health. According to the American Heart Association, similar factors may cause breast and heart problems. Also, women who are taking breast cancer treatments may be putting their heart health at risk. Alternatively, having a pre-existing heart condition will affect the treatment decisions of women who have breast cancer.
Mammograms and the Detection of Heart Problems
Mammograms help to detect breast problems. This type of x-ray examination can check if there are calcifications in the arteries of the breasts. If white streaks are noted in the breasts, there’s an increased chance that the arteries in the heart have them too.
Dr. JoAnn E. Manson said that women with arterial calcification in the breasts have a 70% chance of having them in their coronary arteries. Common risk factors of arterial calcifications in the breast and heart may include:
More studies are required to prove that arterial calcification in the breast is a sure sign that the affected patient will suffer a heart problem in the future. For now, radiologists don’t record any notable calcifications in the arteries, although other types of calcifications are recorded. Other types of calcifications include the following:
- Calcifications due to injury, surgery, or infection that cause damage to fat cells.
- Calcification in the milk ducts.
- Calcification in the ducts of the breasts.
With more research, there may come a time when radiologists can note observations of arterial calcification in the breast, including whether the calcifications are mild, moderate, or severe to help doctors predict the risk of having heart problems. This will also help in early prevention, as well as in encouraging women to take better care of their breasts and heart.
Chemotherapy and Heart Health
Different types of chemotherapy are used to treat breast cancer, including anthracycline doxorubicin. The only problem with this method is that it can cause permanent damage to the heart. The risk to the heart is only 1% or 2%, but the effects can be devastating.
Meanwhile, chemotherapy, in general, can cause heart rhythm issues like murmurs. Fortunately, these side effects disappear once the treatment ends.
Radiation Therapy and Heart Disease
The effects of radiation therapy on heart health are cause for concern, especially for patients with cancer of the left breast. Studies have shown that higher doses of radiation pose a higher risk of developing heart problems. However, the technology used for radiation therapy has evolved over the years, and doctors administering this procedure have found ways to minimize the risk to the heart.
Can You Improve Breast and Heart Health?
Although there are some risk factors that you can’t control, there are others that you can. For instance, you can make changes to your lifestyle.
Here is what you can do.
- Staying fit and physically active
- Eating healthy food
- Stop smoking
- Drinking alcoholic beverages moderately
- Keeping your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels in check.
If you’re currently undergoing cancer treatment, there are things you can do to help stay on top of your heart health.
- Know the risks of the treatment you’re taking. Anthracyclines, Herceptin, and PERJETA are only a few of the drugs that can impact your heart health.
- Consult your oncologist and cardiologist about the risk of your cancer treatment and its effects on your heart. They will help find a way to minimize them and protect your heart’s health.
- Lifestyle factors play a crucial role in keeping your heart health in check. Undergoing breast cancer treatments can be stressful and that’s why practicing relaxation techniques can help. You should also exercise, rid yourself of unhealthy habits, and eat adequate fresh fruits and vegetables.
Breast and heart health are connected, which is why it’s all the more important to take care of your body.
The journey is different for each individual person living with and beyond breast cancer. And priorities for nutrition and other lifestyle choices can change over time. Diagnostic and treatment advances have brought such improvements in breast cancer outcomes that breast cancer survivors now need to consider heart health in their lifestyle choices.
Fortunately, choices that support positive breast cancer outcomes have room to include choices that reduce the risk of cancer in the future and promote heart health. Incorporate the suggestions mentioned above, and consult your doctor for any unusual changes you may notice.