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Radiation for Breast Cancer can Raise Heart Disease Risk

Update Date: Mar 13, 2013 09:18 PM EDT

Researchers have confirmed a link between a popular breast cancer treatment and heart disease in women, according to a new study published Wednesday.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine was conducted by scientists at the University of Oxford and in Scandinavia, looked at over 2,000 women treated with radiotherapy in Denmark and Sweden. They found that the risk of radiation-related heart disease was real, but that for most women it was small.

"Breast cancer patients who are candidates for radiation should still receive radiation," said study co-author Dr. Candace Correa, a radiation oncologist at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Florida. "This isn't an alarmist study, but should be used to estimate radiation risks to the heart and take efforts to reduce that dose."

Findings from the study, according to the authors, "make it possible to estimate" a patient's risk for heart disease related to radiation. "This absolute risk can be weighed against the probable absolute reduction in her risk of recurrence or death from breast cancer that would be achieved with radiotherapy." 

"I think these findings are just the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Javid Moslehi, co-director of the cardio-oncology program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study. "Radiation can cause other diseases associated with the heart such as arrhythmias, valve problems, and vascular disease linked to strokes, which the study didn't measure."

The study excluded women who took potent chemotherapy drugs known to damage the heart; many breast cancer patients with invasive tumors that have spread to the lymph nodes undergo radiation along with those drugs, which likely increases their heart risks even further.

However, doctors say women should not panic, because radiation improves cancer survival and that is the main precedence. The chance of suffering a radiation-induced heart attack is fairly small and women can do a lot to cut the risk by keeping their weight, cholesterol and blood pressure under control. 

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