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 (1)