Protecting breast cancer patients

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SEATTLE, Wash. - Darla Morin is no stranger to this hospital room.

"I spent my lunch hour for four weeks here," she said.

Morin was diagnosed with breast cancer.  But after undergoing a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, she could finally say she's cancer free.

Close to 3 million women in the United States are breast cancer survivors.  But as those numbers rise due to improving treatments, doctors have to rethink the futures of their survivors.

"Doctors and researchers now have to place a greater emphasis on advances that can minimize long-term side-effects of our cancer treatments," explained Christine Phang, M.D., a Radiation Oncologist at the University of Washington.

One of these side effects is an increased risk of heart disease. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine says radiation can make arteries more likely to harden and clog, leading to a heart attack, and can also cause valve and rhythm problems. And these risks can last for decades after the treatment is over.

One thing breast cancer patients can do to protect their hearts is holding their breath for 20 seconds while they're given radiation.

"This actually expands the lungs and pushes the heart out of the way, away from the breast and also out of the radiation beam," Phang explained.

Exercise during and after treatment is also important, especially for women with risk factors like diabetes. 

Also, stock up on flaxseed.  The vitamins and the omega-three fats in the seeds lower the risk of heart disease.  Studies show it can also help some treatments work better and slow cancer cell growth.

Finally, stay away from saturated and trans fats.  The two are linked to heart disease and cancer recurrence.

Additional Information:

With more than 200,000 new cases diagnosed in 2013 alone, breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancers affecting women. However, today there are more breast cancer survivors than ever and beating the disease has become more common thanks to earlier diagnosis and better treatment options. Now, women with breast cancer need to start thinking about what's next. (Source:

Treatment Side Effects: As well as possibly posing a long-term risk to the heart, radiation and chemotherapy can have other side effects for women. Here are some things breast cancer patients should look out for: 

  • Nausea and Vomiting – The best thing to do in order to help with loss of appetite due to nausea and vomiting is stick to bland, room-temperature foods.
  • Weakness and Fatigue – Exercise and eating more iron can stave off fatigue.
  • Mouth and Throat Soreness – Mouth sores may also begin to appear.
  • Skin Sensitivity and Rashes – This is especially true with radiation therapy.


Prevent Cancer before it Starts: Women can take steps to lower their risk of breast cancer. These steps include:

  • Reduce exposure to BPA (bisphenol A): a weak synthetic estrogen found in many plastic products, and food and formula can linings, BPA can disrupt the body's normal hormonal balance which can cause breast cancer cell growth. Opt for drinking from glass, steel or ceramic water bottles, and avoid high canned food intake.
  • Cut the drinks: limit alcohol to no more than one drink a day.
  • Control your weight: being overweight or obese can increase risk of breast cancer.
  • Stay physically active: the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, such as walking or swimming.
  • Discontinue hormone therapy: long-term combination hormone therapy in women increases the risk of breast cancer. (Source:

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