Risk of Heart Problems Increases After Radiation Therapy

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Radiation therapy is an important part of treatment for many women with breast cancer. Like many cancer treatments, the side effects can be just as bothersome and scary as the cancer.

A study shows that women who got radiation therapy for breast cancer between 1970 and 1986 had a greater risk (about two to three times higher) of heart problems than women who didn't get radiation therapy. The heart problems included heart attack, heart failure, and heart valve problems. The risk of heart problems was higher because the heart and sometimes the tissue surrounding the breast were exposed to radiation that was intended for the breast cancer. Smoking as well as getting chemotherapy seemed to add to the increased risk from radiation therapy.

Still, it's VERY IMPORTANT to note that this study looked at women who got radiation therapy in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, advances in technology make the heart and surrounding breast tissue much less likely to be exposed to radiation.

Computers now are used to plan radiation treatment that is extremely precise. The computer aims just the right amount of radiation only at tissue that needs to be treated. Other new technology gives your radiation oncologist a wider and safer choice of radiation energy sources. Together, these two advances give your radiation oncologist the ability to avoid exposing your heart to radiation intended for the breast area. Some radiation therapy equipment tracks heart beats and the movement of your lungs and effectively blocks those tissues from any radiation exposure.

If radiation therapy is part of your treatment plan, ask your radiation oncologist if the technology being used is up-to-date. Talk to your radiation therapy treatment team about how they'll make sure that you get only the radiation therapy required to effectively treat the breast cancer.

Visit the breastcancer.org Radiation section to learn more about how radiation therapy works, its risks and side effects.

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