Heart risk might rise slightly with radiation therapy

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Three million women in the United States have been treated for breast cancer, and most of those women have received radiotherapy. Although the finding that radiation increases a woman s risk of heart disease is nothing new, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine is now putting numbers to that risk.

The study, led by Dr. Sarah Darby, a professor of medical statistics at the University of Oxford in Britain, used the records of about 2000 women who received radiation for breast cancer between 1958 and 2001 in Sweden and Denmark. Of those women, 963 had major cardiac events defined as a heart attack or clogged arteries that required treatment or resulted in death.

Dr. Darby says that It would be a real tragedy if this put women off having radiotherapy for breast cancer. And Dr. Silvia Formenti, chairwoman of radiation oncology at New York University Langone Medical Center adds that she worried that women with cancer would misconstrue these findings to mean that radiation is dangerous and that they should have their breasts removed instead of having lumpectomies, in order to avoid radiation. She says instead that exposure of the heart to radiation should be minimized as much as possible and women should pay attention to other risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross agrees that women should not use this slightly increased risk of heart disease as a reason to avoid receiving radiation. He also points out that the study looks at records from 1958 to 2001.

This is a huge window of time, during which radiological techniques have changed for the better. A woman being treated with radiation in 2001, and even more so in 2013, can expect far different approaches and doses to non-target tissues and organs, than women in 1958 who were part of this study.