To combat these side effects, an innovative University of Minnesota Health program pairs heart and cancer specialists together in a team effort to prevent cancer-related heart conditions,and treat them when they occur.
Our cardio-oncology program, one of the first of its kind in the Midwest, treats heart conditions caused by radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Heart and cancer specialists in the clinic work with current cancer patients and survivors to manage and prevent heart-related issues, like hypertension and heart failure.
For years, cancers such as Hodgkin lymphoma were treated primarily with chest radiation, which has led to heart issues for some survivors today.
“Radiation and chemotherapy can cause latent effects which may emerge many years after your treatment is completed,” said Cardiologist Suma Konety, MD, director of the cardio-oncology program. “We now see patients who were treated 20 or 30 years ago coming in with coronary artery disease and valvular disease.”
Though improvements in cancer treatment over the decades have helped reduce side effects, current chemotherapy regimens can still cause heart issues for patients while they’re undergoing treatment. Some classes of drugs—such as anthracyclines, which are often used to treat breast cancer, lymphomas and sarcomas—can cause patients to develop heart failure, said Hematologist/Oncologist Anne Blaes, MD.
Chemotherapy and radiation can also cause cardiac problems including hypertension, various valvular diseases, heart failure, arrhythmia and coronary artery disease. Radiation therapy can damage blood vessels.
These problems don’t necessarily go away when the cancer treatments stop. “Cancer patients may also still be at risk for heart problems many, many years later,” Blaes said. “We have to be very diligent in our monitoring and treatment.”
To treat patients with cancer-related heart conditions, the University of Minnesota Health cardio-oncology program care providers focus on education, diligent monitoring and prevention. “Once we are aware that a patient is at risk, we become more watchful of problems that could ensue,” Konety said.
Routine monitoring of at-risk cancer patients and survivors is particularly important, Konety added, because it enables providers to find and address heart problems quickly, improving patient outcomes.
Within the cardio-oncology program, physicians are always researching better ways to protect patients from developing heart conditions during and after cancer treatments. Cancer care providers now use fewer anthracyclines when treating diseases like breast cancer, Blaes said. Whenever possible, they use chemotherapy in place of radiation, which was once a staple of certain cancer treatments.
“As a community, we’re constantly looking for ways to remove some of the more harmful drugs and therapies from our regimens,” Blaes said. “We want to know: how can we use less and still get the same outcome?”
University of Minnesota researchers like Blaes and Konety are also leading studies to determine why certain people develop heart conditions after undergoing cancer treatments and how to better prevent long-lasting issues from arising.
“The more we learn, the better we can continue to be at protecting patients’ hearts,” Konety said.