Study Links Radiation Therapy to Heart Disease
A study published Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine linked radiation used to treat breast cancer to an increased risk of heart disease in women.
However, cancer specialists said the increased risk is "minimal" and shouldn't deter women with breast cancer from going through radiation therapy.
"Whatever cardiac risks may be there, they are outweighed by the cancer benefit," said Dr. Bruce Haffty, Associate Director of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
The increased risk of heart disease is triggered by any amount of radiation, begins five years after initial exposure and can last up to 20 years, according to findings from the study.
The study examined 2,168 breast cancer patients from Sweden and Denmark, 963 of whom suffered a heart attack or other major heart problem. The researchers then measured the amount of radiation absorbed by the women's bodies.
Researchers who were part of the study said radiation damages arteries, which makes them more susceptable to hardening and clogging. When this happens, it is harder for the heart to pump blood through the body, increasing the risk of cardiac arrest.
Radiation can also interfere with the heart's rhythm and valve functions, according to Dr. Javid Moslehi, co-director of the cardio-oncology program at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. However, Moslehi stressed that heart disease develops as a result of several factors, including high cholesterol and smoking, and radiation is "just another factor."
Cancer patient Ghecemy Lopez said she is open to radiation therapy, despite the risks.
"Even though there are many risks, you still need to go through that whether you like it or not. But that's what we have available in modern medicine right now," Lopez said. "And we need to fight for our lives."
To combat the problem, some medical centers have created treatment tables with holes for a woman's breast to hang through. Doctors believe this allows radiation to target specific parts of the body and could reduce damage to the cardiovascular system.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.