What Does Radiation Therapy Do to the Heart?


Take a look at how radiation therapy can impact the future health of your heart.

Radiation therapy is used to treat many forms of cancer. They blasted me with it as a child when I was being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma. However, what does radiation therapy do to the heart?

Unfortunately, radiation therapy can cause cardiotoxicity. In other words, radiation can injury literally every part of the heart. This means that the pericardium, myocardium, heart valves and arteries can all be damaged by radiation therapy. The heart's electrical system can also be susceptible to damage, leading to arrhythmias.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the heart damage from radiation therapy isn't always immediate, either. It can show up within months of treatment or take years for a cancer survivor to show any signs of heart damage. That was the case for me.

Like I said, I received chest radiation treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma as a child. However, it wasn't until 20 years later that I had any significant issues with my heart. These issues were discovered abruptly and caused a life-threatening situation. I experienced pericarditis, myocarditis, valvular disease, stenosis and arrhythmia issues on different occasions. This shows the importance of a patient's cardiologist and oncologist working together before radiation therapy.

"A cardiologist and cancer doctor working together can determine an individual patient's risk for cardiotoxicity by doing certain tests and imaging before radiation therapy starts. If a patient is at risk, the radiation therapy doctor may limit the amount of radiation dose given during treatment, or aim the radiation beams so that they miss the heart. The goal is to balance the benefits of cancer treatment with the risk of damage to the heart," the Cleveland Clinic says on its website.

If you've had radiation therapy for your Hodgkin lymphoma or another type of cancer in the past, I suggest a couple of things. One, making sure that you are seeing a cardiologist on a regular basis, and two, living a heart healthy lifestyle.

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Dr. Lauren Pinter-Brown