Cancer Radiation Therapy Linked to Future Cancer Risk, Heart Problems

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Along with surgery, therapies such as radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted and hormonal medicines make breast cancer treatable. Still, because the treatments have unavoidable effects on healthy cells as well as cancer cells, there are pros and cons associated with each. Some of radiation's possible unintended effects are heart damage and developing a new, different cancer in the future.

The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) has confirmed the risks of radiation therapy to treat cancer. In a report, the council noted that as the number of cancer survivors tripled in the last 40 years, more survivors have developed heart problems or a new, different cancer likely related to radiation exposure during treatment for the first cancer.

Findings from the report were published in the Feb. 6, 2012 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Besides confirming the heart problems and future cancer risks linked to cancer radiation therapy, the NCRP report pointed out that doctors don't have good guidance on how large these risks are and how best to manage and monitor them.

Some of the cancer care improvements in recent decades are due to using existing treatments in new, better, and safer ways. For example, new radiation techniques and computer technology make it possible to dramatically reduce the amount of healthy tissue -- such as the heart -- exposed to radiation that's treating cancer. But there are still risks associated with radiation therapy.

If you will be or have been treated for breast cancer, it's a good idea to ask your doctor about any future health risks linked to your treatment. If you haven't started treatment yet, you might want to ask your doctor if your treatment techniques are the best for minimizing any treatment-related health risks.

Radiation therapy may be a very important part of your treatment plan as you and your doctor do all that you can to assure the best outcome possible. You may not be able to avoid all risks associated with treatment, but you can take steps to minimize those risks. Maintaining a lifestyle that is both heart healthy and minimizes cancer risk is important for everyone. Because of the heart and cancer risks linked to radiation treatment, a healthy lifestyle is even more important if you've been treated with radiation for breast cancer. You can't change your need for cancer treatment. But you can reduce your risk of heart problems and cancer by controlling what you can:

  • Eat a diet full of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly at a moderate intensity.
  • Don't smoke and avoid alcohol.
  • Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, and stick to any treatments your doctor prescribes for these conditions.
  • If you have diabetes, work with your doctor to manage your condition in the best way possible.

These steps won't just help minimize your risk of heart disease and a new, different cancer in the future; they also can help reduce your risk of breast cancer coming back.

As you move beyond breast cancer treatment, it is also very important that you regularly see a doctor who is familiar with your breast cancer treatment history and understands your special health risks. Together, you can come up with a counseling, monitoring, and screening plan that takes into account any possible complications from earlier treatment.

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