Before I had cancer, my major health concern was heart disease. All four of my grandparents died of heart failure. My father was still in his 60’s when he had a heart attack and by-pass surgery.
My annual physical exams with my doctor focused on what I needed to do to keep my heart healthy. Cancer was the least of my worries. After all, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women.
According to the Center for Disease Control about 715,000 people have a heart attack in the U.S. each year. One out of every four deaths--about 600,000--are from heart disease, which can include heart attacks, angina, congestive heart failure, and arrhythmias. Heart disease and strokes are both caused when plaque builds up in arteries. Together these two are not only leading causes of death, but also of disability.
Although my blood pressure and cholesterol levels were good, I felt that eventually heart disease would kill me. Then for my 50th birthday, I received a cancer diagnosis. Suddenly no one was worried about my heart. Once a scan determined that my heart was strong enough to take chemo to fight my aggressive cancer, the battle was on to keep me alive, and heart health took a back burner.
My blood pressure was high at every oncologist visit, but no one said a word. Since it was still normal at the primary care doctor, I didn’t worry about it. I assumed the stress of seeing an oncologist probably puts many people’s blood pressure up.
Some people measure their victory over cancer in years or tumor markers. I knew that my doctors were confident I would stay well when the conversation went back to managing my cholesterol and triglycerides. Finally, it appeared I would live long enough for these to matter!
Fortunately, the same things that can keep your heart healthy are the ones that may prevent cancer or its recurrence. Here are a few.
Stop smoking. Tobacco use is associated with both heart disease and cancer. Although everyone knows that smoking is a factor in lung cancer, not everyone knows that it is also a risk factor for breast cancer.
Use alcohol moderately or not at all. Although some studies find a benefit from red wine for heart health, excessive alcohol use can increase blood pressure which puts stress on the heart. A post by PJ Hamel explains the risk of alcohol use in relation to breast cancer. An article on the Mayo Clinic website discusses the possible ways a substance in red wine called resveratrol might be heart healthy. The article points out that this substance is also in grape skins and grape juice, so the alcohol may not be the beneficial ingredient. The Mayo clinic staff says that no one should start drinking wine based on current research while suggesting that those who already have a glass of wine with dinner may derive some heart health benefits. Those who are at risk for breast cancer or breast cancer recurrence may want to get their resveratrol from red grapes or grape juice.
Exercise regularly. For both breast cancer and heart disease, regular exercise is beneficial. Start gradually if you haven’t been exercising. I confess this one is the hardest for me to follow consistently. I have done best when I start small and add a few minutes a day to a neighborhood walk. Other people thrive on having a routine at the gym or an exercise partner to work out with. Some people do better when exercise is in the form of a game like tennis.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Studying the effects of diet on cancer and heart disease prevention can be complicated. It is hard to design a study that takes into account all the complicated parts of the human diet over years and years. However, it is clear that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables in a wide array of colors is good for both heart health and cancer prevention. PJ Hamel offers some excellent tips on how to make your diet more breast cancer prevention friendly, and every one of her suggestions is good for your heart too.
February is American Heart Month. A dark chocolate heart for Valentine’s Day is good for the heart of your soul and body. It’s good to know that what you do to keep your heart healthy may also reduce your risk of breast cancer. It’s great for a cancer survivor to know that she will live long enough that she needs to take care of her heart.
February is American Heart Month. Center for Disease Control. Accessed 2/16/2013. http://www.cdc.gov/features/heartmonth/
Red wine and resveratrol: Good for your heart? Mayo Clinic. Accessed 2/16/2013. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/red-wine/HB00089