As if having cancer isn’t bad enough, cancer survivors suffer significant added risks of heart damage. Why? The drugs used to treat cancer often have bad side effects on the heart. What’s worse is that these side effects may occur immediately or up to years later.

Some of the cancer drugs can stiffen the arteries, making heart attacks more likely. Others can weaken and alter the structure of the heart muscle, a condition called cardiomyopathy. Either of these heart problems can take years to occur. Cardiomyopathy leads to congestive heart failure, in which the heart is unable to meet the demands of the circulation.

Other cancer medications can alter the electrical system, making it more likely that the heart beats dangerously fast. This rapid heart beat is more likely to occur during exercise and can even result in death.

Still, these risks may be necessary in order to treat the cancer. Some oncologists are reluctant to advise patients of such risks, because of fear that patients might then refuse the cancer treatments.

As in many, many human undertakings the left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Oncologists may be unaware of a patient’s previous heart conditions and heart doctors may be uninformed about which cancer drugs a patient is taking.

This problem thank God has not gone unnoticed. There is a movement afoot to coordinate care between oncologists and cardiologists. Patients who are taking certain high risk chemotherapy would automatically be referred to cardiologists who have expertise in managing cancer patients. The cardiologists in turn would work closely with their oncology colleagues so that cancer sufferers would receive optimal care.

As more cancer patient’s are surviving and the population is aging, there will be more patients with preexisting heart disease who need cancer medications. With this new movement to encourage such patients to work both with oncologists and cardiologists, the rate of serious heart complications will hopefully be reduced.

If you have cancer and are on chemotherapy, consider asking for a referral to heart doctor. You might be very glad that you did.