Dr. Jay Harris discusses the link between radiation therapy for breast cancer and heart disease

By Robert Levy

In a recent study, Oxford University researchers reported that although radiation therapy is a critical tool for the treatment of women with breast cancer, it can also raise their risk of a heart attack or heart disease later in life. The study was based on a review of medical records of 2,168 women in Sweden and Denmark who received radiation therapy for breast cancer between 1958 and 2001, and who were under age 70 at the time.

News coverage of the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, has drawn new attention to the heart risks associated with radiation therapy even as it underscores such therapy’s role in improving survival rates for breast cancer patients.

Jay Harris, MD, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Dana-Farber, notes that radiation therapy today is delivered more precisely and in smaller doses than when many of the women in the study were treated, reducing the damage to nearby heart tissue.

“For patients with cancer in the left breast, we use a variety of techniques to ensure that very low doses reach the heart,” he explains. “These include using blocks to shield the heart and having patients hold a deep breath while receiving radiation, which moves the heart away from the chest wall.

“With the low doses currently in use, the risk of heart problems is far lower than in the past and is now very low in absolute terms,” he continues. “The increases in patient survival achieved by radiation therapy are far greater than the very slightly elevated risk for heart disease in such patients.”

heart movement with respiration

3 thoughts on “Dr. Jay Harris discusses the link between radiation therapy for breast cancer and heart disease”

  1. My radiation was done 14 years ago. Are there any tests or scans that are recommended now, to look for signs of heart damage?
    My breast cancer was on the left side.

  2. Hi Carole:
    The study that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine was reported in The Boston Globe and many other media outlets. Based on these survey findings, Dana-Farber Cardiologist Javid Moslehi, MD, who was quoted in that article, does recommend following up with a cardiologist at some point after treatment to ensure that no damage has been done to the heart muscle. You may want to get a referral from your primary care physician to see a cardiologist. Or you can contact our Adult Survivorship Program and ask about seeing Dr. Moslehi or another cardiologist in our survivorship program. Contact information for the Adult Survivorship Program can be found here.

  3. WOW!!! This is Amazing, Thank you for this helpful tips I really learned a lot from this. Will share to my friends as well. Thanks for sharing.

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