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The heart of the matter: Understanding cancer treatment side effects

The heart of the matter: Understanding cancer treatment side effects

After a cancer diagnosis, your immediate focus is on treating the cancer. The primary goal of any cancer treatment plan is to eradicate cancer, but a secondary goal is to do so while limiting cancer treatment side effects. Our team of Touro cancer care specialists explains how cancer treatment can affect the body.

How common cancer treatments work

There are multiple types of cancer treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. Since cancer cells can be fast-growing, the purpose of cancer treatment is to get rid of those cells, as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

The effects of cancer treatment can also be, however, incidental harm to parts of the body unaffected by cancer. Think about it this way: When you take an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, the antibiotic clears out both the bad bacteria causing the infection and the good bacteria, which help keep your gut functioning well.

Cancer treatments can have a similar effect by killing off the cancer but also damaging healthy cells near the cancer or in other parts of the body.

Common cancer treatment side effects

The side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and other types of cancer treatment affect nearly all parts of the body.

Side effects of radiation are usually specific to the area being treated, causing symptoms such as a rash or burn. There are different types of radiation therapy that vary in how they target the cancer, though. A patient undergoing systemic radiation therapy, which includes radioactive drugs that move throughout the body, may experience broader symptoms, affecting more of the body.

Side effects of chemotherapy may affect other parts of the body as well, causing pain, hair loss and fatigue. Other potential chemo side effects include mouth and throat sores, gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea and constipation, and blood disorders. Because of chemotherapy’s effect on blood cell production, you’ll have regular tests during cancer treatment to monitor the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Every patient experiences cancer uniquely, so your experience can vary from someone else who’s facing the same type of cancer. Side effects can be limited in scope and mild, or they can be severe and continue after treatment is finished.

Cancer treatment and the heart

The potent nature of treatment is good for eradicating cancer, but it can also have powerful effects on your heart health—what’s known as cardiotoxicity.

Those who undergo certain types of chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the chest may experience heart health issues, including congestive heart failure, heart disease or a heart rhythm abnormality.

Cancer patients can develop these heart conditions while undergoing cancer treatment or even years later. Survivors who had cancer as a child, who have preexisting heart health issues, who are age 60 or older, or who received high doses of chemo are at a particularly high risk of developing heart problems after treatment.

Certain cancer treatments can negatively impact the heart with side effects such as abnormal heart rhythms and heart failure. Chemotherapy drugs, for example, can damage the heart muscle, as can other medications often given during treatment if they cause side effects such as high blood pressure.

If you have any risk factors that may put you at a higher risk of heart-related cancer treatment side effects or you’re diagnosed with a heart health issue, your oncologist will work with a cardio-oncology specialist to help lower the risk of damage and take steps to protect your heart.

When you or a loved one has cancer, you want the peace of mind of knowing you can get the expert care you need, close to home. Learn more about cancer services and treatments offered at Touro Cancer Care & Infusion Center.