Best interest at heart
New research team to protect cardiac health of breast-cancer patients
Story by Greg Kennedy; Photo by Stephen Wreakes
February 23, 2012 - “When you have cancer, it feels like your whole life, your whole world, is tumbling about you,” says Brenda Goodkey, a 54-year-old Devon woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer almost five years ago.
“The psychological battle, not letting the stress make you sicker, is often the toughest part.”
Goodkey found it especially discouraging to discover the chemotherapy that helped her to beat the disease had also weakened her heart.
She’s not alone. As many as one in five women who undergo chemotherapy for breast cancer may experience some degree of debilitation in heart function following treatment.
New research on how best to protect the heart health of women being treated for breast cancer is underway at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, thanks to a $300,000 grant from the University Hospital Foundation in partnership with the Allard Foundation.
An interdisciplinary team — led by Alberta Health Services (AHS) cardiologist Dr. Ian Paterson, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Alberta — will establish a new clinic of specialists and researchers from cardiology, oncology, rehabilitation medicine, imaging and biomedical engineering. They will identify breast cancer patients at risk for heart damage as they develop strategies to prevent it.
“There have been many advances in cancer treatment in the last 10 years,” says Paterson. “The vast majority of patients with breast cancer are surviving; they’re beating their cancer. But what doctors are now realizing is that some of the women are showing signs of heart damage. We believe there are ways to detect early signs of heart damage and then stop it before it starts.”
With team members drawn from the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, the Cross Cancer Institute and the University of Alberta, the team’s approach is based on the belief that heart damage due to cancer treatment can be prevented by aggressively treating risk factors for heart disease.
The Cross Cancer Institute sees about 1,250 new breast-cancer patients a year. During this three-year clinical trial, breast-cancer patients will be invited to take part in a randomized study. Half will be referred to the new interdisciplinary clinic; the other half will receive the current standard of care, which involves visits with their oncologist and periodic cardiac ultrasounds.
“We think this is a really important and novel program; other centres may not be able to tackle the problem as comprehensively as we can here in Edmonton,” says nurse practitioner Edie Pituskin.
“Here we have two centres of research excellence — the Cross Cancer Institute, which leads the country in terms of recruiting patients to clinical trials, and we have the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, with its cutting-edge research, medical expertise, imaging technology and science. We can approach this problem from multiple avenues.”
The clinic will use state-of-the-art imaging equipment to monitor heart health as well as recommend diet, exercise, medication and ways to manage nausea and vomiting during chemo.
“Our team is going to follow patients with breast cancer right from day one when they come in,” says Paterson. “We’re going to detect their risk factors for heart disease. We’re going to screen them very carefully for high blood pressure. We’re going to screen them for cholesterol. And we’re going to treat these risk factors because, ultimately, it’s going to prevent heart failure.”
Over 35,000 patients are treated every year at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. More than 1,200 open heart surgeries are performed annually.
Funding for the Innovative Team Research Grant Competition comes from donors to the University Hospital Foundation.
“We are deeply grateful for the tremendous community support that makes this research possible, and in particular, the Allard Foundation,” says Joyce Mallman Law, President of the University Hospital Foundation. “This research is a tremendous example of the power of team — it brings physicians and specialists from a wide variety of fields together to seek the best possible outcomes for patients.”
Goodkey continues to exercise and follow the dietary recommendations of her care team, which she says has helped to strengthen her heart in recent years.
“I am overwhelmingly excited for this research team just knowing they’re working diligently to improve the welfare of other women who are experiencing cardiac concerns with their cancer,” says Goodkey. “To have access to the people and the resources that can help you have a better quality of life is very exciting.”