Surprising link between Australia’s two biggest health burdens

Jan 03, 2021
Certain cancer treatments are connected to a greater risk of heart disease. Source: Getty.

Recent decades have seen remarkable progress made in cancer management, with many patients now having access to several effective treatment options, including surgery, chemotherapy and targeted therapy, radiotherapy, or more recently immunotherapy – the four pillars of modern cancer treatment.

As a result, cancer survival rates have dramatically improved, and there are an estimated half-a-million cancer survivors in Australia today, of which 68 per cent live more than five years beyond their diagnosis.

However, some cancer treatments can lead to an increased risk of other non-cancer conditions, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, hypothyroidism and lymphoedema. CVD is one of the most common of these treatment-related conditions, with cancer survivors having an up to 1.7 times greater risk of developing CVD than the general population.

For people coming to grips with a recent cancer diagnosis, their heart health may not be an immediate priority as they prepare for often significant and rapid adjustments to their everyday life. However, managing the effects of cancer treatments on the heart, known as cardio toxicity, from the outset can help to minimise long-term impacts and improve quality of life.

Cardio-Oncology is an emerging field of medicine that focuses on the detection, monitoring and treatment of CVD that may develop or worsen in patients undergoing certain cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Both traditional and novel chemotherapies can potentially have serious effects on the cardiovascular system both during and post treatment, affecting the heart and surrounding blood vessels and resulting in problems with blood clotting. Similarly, radiotherapy can affect the arteries in the heart, increasing the risk of coronary artery disease or blockages in the long term.

These effects on the heart also have the potential to impact cancer treatment dose and duration, which may need to be reduced or even paused due to their impact.

Thankfully, doctors can now take simple steps to reduce the risks to the heart associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. With relatively simple and safe cardiac monitoring and treatment techniques, doctors are working to ensure patients can continue and complete their treatment at full dose, helping to improve long-term outcomes.

Over the past two years, we at GenesisCare have been rolling out Cardio-Oncology clinics across Australia, with cardiologists working closely with radiation oncologists, medical oncologists and haematologists to closely monitor cancer patients at high risk of cardiac complications during and following treatment, helping to improve widespread access to these services.

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