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Experts say more young cancer survivors need to be referred by oncologists to cardiologists. Getty Images
  • Researchers say young people who survive cancer have a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • They say this is particularly true of young people from households with annual incomes of less than $50,000.
  • Experts say much of the heart disease risk is from cancer treatments themselves.
  • They say more young cancer patients need to be referred to cardiologists during and after their treatment.

When Simon Davies opened the doors a decade ago to Teen Cancer America, a non-profit organization that supports adolescents and young adults with cancer, he knew there were physical and emotional issues that young cancer patients had to deal with after their treatment.

But like many, he knew little about the serious risk of experiencing damage to the heart that young survivors of cancer face.

“You get diagnosed with cancer at a young age, you undergo grueling, toxic treatment and therapies that bring you close to death, and you survive and struggle to piece your life back together. End of story? No,” Davies told Healthline.

“Then you suffer long-term disabling conditions that cause equal harm, and in some cases such as cardiovascular issues, threaten your life again,” he said.

A new study published today in the journal Cancer sheds new light on the issue of heart damage among young cancer patients.

In it, researchers said they identified various factors associated with the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

The researchers from Duke University in North Carolina and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center collected 2009–2018 data from the National Health Interview Survey, which collects information on a broad range of health topics through personal interviews of U.S. households.

Responses from 4,766 young cancer survivors and 47,660 young people who haven’t had cancer were included.

The researchers said the risk of cardiovascular disease was significantly higher in cancer survivors in virtually all categories, including sex, race/ethnicity, income, education, smoking status, and physical activity levels.

Approximately 95 percent of childhood cancer survivors suffer from at least one long-term effect as a result of their cancer or its treatment, experts tell Healthline.

A primary reason why young people with cancer have subsequent cardiovascular disease issues is because of the cancer treatment itself.

“Many patients receive chemotherapy and radiation therapy as a part of their cancer treatment,” said Dr. Michael Roth, co-director of the adolescent and young adult oncology program at MD Anderson and co-senior author of the study.

“A class of chemotherapeutic agents known as anthracyclines are well known to place patients at risk for long-term damage to the heart muscle. Radiation therapy to the chest also causes direct damage to the heart muscle and valves,” Roth told Healthline.

The researchers reported that household incomes of less than $50,000 a year disproportionately increased the odds of heart disease in cancer survivors.

Roth also noted that young cancer patients and survivors can reduce their risk by having a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping their blood pressure low, and avoiding tobacco products.

When she was 4 years old, Ruth Mersburgh, now 21, was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma, a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body.

Mersburgh eventually went into remission from her cancer, but she developed cardiovascular issues from the time she began treatment for her cancer. Her difficulties included difficulty breathing and walking.

In the past couple of years, Mersburgh’s health has deteriorated even more. Her doctors are now considering a lung transplant.

“As I get older, I realize that this is not normal to have all these doctors and all these medications,” said Mersburgh, a national advocate for young people with cancer who are also dealing with cardiovascular issues.

“I love to sail. I have a happy life, despite all the issues I’m dealing with,” she told Healthline.

Roth says that while there are a growing number of referrals by oncologists to cardiologists regarding young people with cancer, there needs to be more.

“Young cancer survivors at risk for cardiovascular health issues require frequent screening of the blood pressure and heart function,” he said.

“The goal is to detect any signs of cardiovascular dysfunction at their earliest stages so it can be treated before patients become symptomatic and experience severe dysfunction such as heart failure,” Roth added.