Cardio-oncology is an emerging field dedicated to optimizing the cardiovascular care that cancer patients receive before, during, and after their cancer treatment. Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center is at the forefront of this evolving field.
How Cancer Treatment Can Affect Patients’ Heart Health
Although cancer treatments are constantly improving, some of the most effective cancer therapies can cause side effects related to patients’ hearts and other areas of the cardiovascular system.
In addition to the known side effects that radiation can have on the heart and other organs, studies have shown that some common cancer drugs can also impact the cardiovascular system. The cancer patients who may be most at risk are smokers, patients over the age of 60, or those with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. For instance, certain types of chemotherapy have been linked to a higher risk of developing a weakened heart muscle, heart valve issues, or arrhythmias. Additionally, some leukemia patients who take blood thinners for heart problems face an increased risk of bleeding if they are treated with certain types of cancer drugs.
However, by studying the effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy on cardiac health and working with other medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and cardiologists, we have the opportunity to proactively prevent or reduce damage to the heart before, during, and after treatment.
Physicians Working Together to Help Patients
A critical component of a successful cardio-oncology program is constant communication among physicians. I recently joined a group of my peers from both oncology and cardiology to discuss the importance of this emerging field as Louisiana Cardiology Associates’ cardiologist Dr. Leon A. Cannizzaro, III hosted a multidisciplinary conference on the complexities of cardio-oncology.
Together with other specialists, Cancer Center medical and radiation oncologists and cardiologists are enhancing protocols and procedures to keep patients’ hearts healthy. As the field of cardio-oncology continues to grow, we’ll keep optimizing best practices as a multidisciplinary group for our patients.
Treating Cancer While Protecting Patients’ Hearts
Though cardio-oncology is still a relatively new and evolving field, the Cancer Center has focused on the challenge of keeping hearts healthy during treatment for years.
In addition to preventive strategies for all cancer patients like recommendations for a healthy diet, low-intensity exercise, and not smoking, the Cancer Center already has a number of preventive measures in place that protect patients’ hearts. These preventive measures include highly specialized radiation treatments that target specific tumors and spare healthy tissues and organs from the effects of radiation. Some examples of protective treatments are the SAVI treatment delivery device, state-of-the-art radiation technology, and the combination of brachytherapy with modern imaging.
One key technique that the Cancer Center has used in treatments for several years is the “breath hold,” which requires breast cancer patients to take a deep breath during radiation treatment, moving the heart and diaphragm down and away from the beam of radiation. While this seems simple in theory, it requires complex calculations by the Cancer Center’s radiation oncologists and medical physicists to ensure the safest and most effective outcome.
The innovation to protect patients’ health while treating cancer continues. Recently, one of the Cancer Center’s medical physicists, Connel Chu, received a competitive grant for his project “BPAP for Radiation Therapy,” which repurposed a bi-level positive airway pressure (BPAP) machine that’s typically used to treat sleep apnea to help lung cancer patients breathe in a more controlled way during radiation treatment. This reimagination of current technology has aided radiation oncologists in their efforts to more precisely target tumors during treatments while avoiding healthy lung tissue and reducing side effects.
Restoring Patients to Whole Health
With continued preventative measures, collaboration, communication, and innovation to coordinate patients’ treatment plans, we will continue providing and improving the best and most personalized care for patients’ heart health. To stay informed of the latest developments at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, sign up for our newsletter.
Dr. Lauren Zatarain is a medical oncologist, active clinical trial investigator, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at LSU, and supporter of the survivorship program at Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, where she currently serves on the Breast, Colorectal and Lung Multidisciplinary Care teams.