If having advanced cancer isn’t enough of a health worry, intense treatment can bring about another serious medical problem — heart disease.
It’s a scenario Jorene Pilcher of Gainesville knows too well.
She was diagnosed 12 years ago with stage 4 breast cancer.
Pilcher, 73, fought it into remission, but “when it came back … I suffered heart failure and a mild heart attack” four years ago, Pilcher said during a doctor's visit last week.
“We have very strong medicines that are able to combat cancer and patients are living much longer,” said Dr. Abhishek Gaur, Pilcher’s cardiologist and medical director of echocardiography at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
“That’s wonderful, but many of these medications … can be damaging to the heart muscle. So, the whole idea, as a heart doctor, is we want patients to have a healthy heart while they go through the chemotherapy.”
It’s an emerging health concern that has spurred the hospital to assemble a multidisciplinary team to provide specialized heart care to patients with cancer before, during and after treatment.
“The goal of our cardio-oncology program is to help patients beat cancer while maintaining a healthy heart,” Gaur said.
“We combine state-of-the-art cardiac imaging with best practices for early diagnosis, prevention and treatment of heart problems associated with cancer therapy to improve the quality of life for cancer survivors.”
Cardiologists in the program collaborate with oncologists, radiologists and other specialists to gather information on the patient’s heart health before cancer treatment begins.
Part of the process is assessing each patient’s individual risk for heart disease.
During cancer treatment, doctors monitor the heart for signs the muscle is weakening, and help patients control their risk factors for heart disease after cancer therapy is complete.
“Cancer therapies are critical to destroying cancer cells, but some of those therapies can also produce toxins that decrease heart function or cause heart damage in the long run,” Gaur said.
Cardio-oncology physicians from The Heart Center of NGMC work closely with the hospital’s cardiac imaging and radiation oncology departments, Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic’s oncology department and The Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center.
“I appreciate this program so much,” Pilcher said. “It really takes a load off my mind.”
Gaur said Pilcher had developed advanced heart failure “we think … was secondary to the medication she was taking.”
Unfortunately, the medication was the most effective drug in combatting her cancer.
“Eventually, she got convinced to take the medicine again, but a different compound that can cause the same type of side effects,” Gaur said. “This time, she’s on preventive medications, and we’re measuring the heart function with sophisticated techniques that can pick up damage very early.”
If there’s damage, “we can postpone the chemotherapy,” he said. “So far, we have not needed to do that.”
Overall, Pilcher said of her health, “It’s going all right. Age really does affect you, but I’m doing good. I have good days and bad days. It’s just part of chemotherapy, especially when you get older.”