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Breast Cancer Drugs and Heart Failure

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drugs for breast cancer and heart failure iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Normally, this time of the year is decorated with brilliant reds, yellows, oranges, and of course, that really gorgeous shade of gold that simply says fall has arrived.

This month, you may have noticed a distinct new color theme – pink!

The month of October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and even my ten-year-old brother was decked out in a t-shirt for “pink out day” at his school to help raise awareness of breast cancer in his community.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 230,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 64,000 cases of early stage breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2012.

Almost 40,000 women will die from breast cancer. Many others will survive. If you listen, you’ll hear their stories everywhere -- almost 3 million of them.

Following a banner of pink, we call these gallant ladies survivors for a reason. Don’t be fooled by the little pink ribbons – breast cancer survivors are tough, tenacious, determined, and possess a courage that is truly humbling.

This terrible disease isn’t for the faint of heart. Breast cancer takes a toll on the family -– just ask my girlfriend Connie who’s lost three sisters to breast cancer. There are holes in this close knit family that will never heal.

Breast cancer takes a toll on the body. Ask any woman who’s lost all her hair and lived bone-weary sick from the effects of chemo.

Ask my friend Joan whose breast cancer had already spread to the bones by the time they found it. Radiation has left her body looking like someone boiled her in hot oil.

I wept -– she just smiled and said it wasn’t that bad. She views it as a minor, temporary inconvenience because she’s alive.

Unfortunately, breast cancer also takes a toll on the heart. The very drugs that offer the cure and hope for a healthy future, may leave the heart weakened and susceptible to heart failure or cardiomyopathy.

Led by lead author Erin Aiello Bowles, MPH, a new Cancer Research Network study by Groups Health Research Institute found that the use of two chemotherapy drugs -– anthracycline and trastuzumab –- are associated with an increased risk of cardiomyopathy and heart failure when compared to women who received no chemotherapy.

Women receiving anthracycline had higher rates of heart failure and cardiomyopathy compared to counterparts who received no chemotherapy. The risk was even higher for women who received trastuzumab.

Women who took both anthracycline and trastuzumab experienced the greatest risk of heart failure and cardiomyopathy.

Overall, women receiving these drugs had a 20 percent chance of heart failure over a five year period compared to only 3.5 percent in women who received no chemo, which is a fairly significant difference.

This study differs from previous studies because it included women from all age demographics, including older women who are not generally included in trial studies.

It is important to note that Bowles identified that the rates varied by age and were much lower in younger women compared to older ones.

Unfortunately, while anthracycline and trastuzumab increase the risk of heart failure and cardiomyopathy, they also improve the survivability for breast cancer patients. So, as with most things in life, it becomes a trade-off.

Do the pros outweigh the cons of taking these cancer-busting drugs? That is a question that can’t be answered here.

The answer, I suspect, is different for each person and can only be determined once you understand both the benefits as well as the potential risks to your long-term health prognosis.


Maggie Fox. Breast cancer survivors may face second threat: heart failure. NBC News: Vitals. 31 Aug 2012. http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/31/13573426-breast-cancer-survivors-may-face-second-threat-heart-failure?lite

Group Health Research Institute (2012, August 30). More heart problems with two chemo drugs for breast cancer, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120830161148.htm

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. http://www.nbcam.org/
How many women get breast cancer? American Cancer Society. 04 Sept 2012. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/overviewguide/breast-cancer-overview-key-statistics

Reviewed October 17, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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