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The Link Between Cancer and Heart Disease

As a follow up to our post on heart disease and stroke for American Heart Month, we wanted to explore the link between cancer and heart disease.

Heart disease and cancer are the number one and two leading causes of death in the United States, respectively, and yet there are few direct connections between them. However, cancer and heart disease share many risk factors, such as older age, smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity, and being overweight or obese, all of which are modifiable with the exception of age.

Given the shared modifiable risk factors, researchers analyzed whether the prevention efforts for heart health would have an impact on cancer risk as well.

Not surprisingly, a long-term study published in 2013 found that adhering to the ideal levels of the seven American Heart Association cardiovascular health metrics, known as “Life’s Simple 7,” was also associated with a lower cancer incidence (see the infographic from Everyday Health below for more information).

Beyond lifestyle choices and shared risk factors, it is worth taking a moment to learn about cancer-related heart disease. While not common, cancer-related heart disease can be the result of primary or secondary heart tumors or even some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, which can cause heart disease and/or weaken the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy).

Primary heart tumors, or tumors that originate in the heart, are especially rare and they can either be cancerous (typically sarcomas developed from blood vessel tissue) or noncancerous (myxomas, jellylike tumors often in the left atrium of the heart).

Secondary heart tumors, or tumors that originate in other parts of the body and spread (metastasize) to the heart, are 30-40 times more common than primary heart tumors; however, they are still rare overall. These secondary heart tumors are always cancerous and typically spread from primary cancer in the lung, breast, blood, or skin. Approximately 10% of those with lung or breast cancer and about 75% of those with malignant melanoma cancer will have it spread to the heart.

The signs and symptoms of cancer-related heart disease include heart failure, arrhythmias, coughing up blood, heart murmurs, weight loss, fever, shortness of breath, and blood clots. It can be difficult to diagnose because it is so rare, but primary tumors may be suspected if the above symptoms are otherwise unexplained whereas secondary tumors may be suspected when those with cancer display symptoms of heart disorders.

Although cancer-related heart disease is not common, February is still a good time for us to reflect on heart disease. This is especially true as both heart disease and cancer are affected by some of the same lifestyle factors — meaning it’s even more important to eat right, get plenty of physical activity, maintain a healthy weight, and stop smoking!





Caryn Huneke is completing her dietetic internship and MS degree in Nutrition Education at Teachers College, Columbia University to become a Registered Dietitian.


  1. February is American Heart Month. Center for Disease Control. Accessed on February 13, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/features/heartmonth/
  2. What You Need to Know About Cancer – Risk Factors. National Cancer Institute. Accessed on February 13, 2014. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/cancer/page3
  3. Rasmussen-Torvik L, Shay C, Abramson J, et al. Ideal Cardiovascular Health is Inversely Associated with Incident Cancer: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Circulation. 2013;127:1270-1275.
  4. Heart-Healthy Habits Can Lower Cancer Risk [Infographic]. Everyday Health. Accessed on February 13, 2014. http://www.everydayhealth.com/heart-health/whats-good-for-the-heart-is-good-for-cancer-prevention-too-9339.aspx
  5. Cancer-Related Heart Disease. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Accessed on February 13, 2014. http://www.bidmc.org/CentersandDepartments/Departments/Medicine/Divisions/
Caryn Huneke

Caryn Huneke is completing her dietetic internship and MS degree in Nutrition Education at Teachers College, Columbia University to become a Registered Dietitian.

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