Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Heart Health after Childhood Cancer

Childhood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, and bone cancer used to mean a death sentence, but tremendous advances have been made in our ability to treat and even cure these dreaded diseases. It is estimated that in the U.S., there are now over 270,000 adult survivors of childhood cancer. Yet survival sometimes comes at a price. In order to kill the cancer cells, young and vulnerable bodies are blasted with toxic doses of chemotherapy and radiation. Sometimes it is the heart that pays the price later in life.

Years ago, before pediatric cancer specialists understood the importance of shielding the heart from radiation aimed at the chest, we would often see blockages of the heart arteries and damage to heart valves when survivors of childhood cancer entered adulthood. Thankfully, that is less common these days. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, circulates throughout the body, so it is impossible to fully protect any organ from its effects. Certain types of chemo, especially commonly used and highly effective drugs like doxorubicin and daunorubicin, may weaken the heart muscle over time.

Cancer specialists from 26 hospitals across the U.S. and Canada are participating in the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study. In 2009, the group reported that survivors have six times the normal risk for congestive heart failure (weakening of the heart muscle), and five times the usual risk for heart attacks. Problems with the heart valves are also more likely.

Many adult survivors of cancer would much prefer to put that frightening part of their lives behind them, but the risk of heart problems appears to increase over time, even as far as 30 years beyond the time of treatment. If you are a survivor, it’s important that you get yearly checkups with your doctor, even if you feel just fine. Not everyone will develop a heart problem, but if there is any question, don’t hesitate to see a cardiologist. Just as with cancer, early detection and treatment can save lives.

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Tags: Kids' Heart Health , Risk Factors for Heart Disease

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.