Heart Protection for Oncology Patients


After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis 15 years ago, Sherry Lubic is still battling the disease. The retired nurse from Beaver County has had a radical mastectomy, targeted therapy, radiation, and systemic chemotherapy, and yet the cancer has metastasized to her bones, liver, and lungs.

Even with all this malignancy riddling her body, Sherry, 62, is still positive, strong, and a fighter in the truest sense. She has a daughter she’s eager to see graduate from Kent State University, a husband who has supported her every step of the way, and a church where she both works and nourishes her faith.

These are just a few of the reasons why physicians at Allegheny Health Network (AHN) want to keep all aspects of Sherry’s health, including her heart, at their best. Having taken regimens of cardio-toxic chemotherapy, Sherry – like many other oncology patients – is susceptible to sustaining damage to her heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). Advances in cancer treatments have dramatically improved patients’ outcomes and quality of life. However, just as these therapies can shrink and kill cancer cells, they can also harm other parts of the body.

“Patients are living longer with cancer, but some are now being afflicted with cardiovascular disease. It’s not about just treating the cancer, but also making sure the rest of the organ systems are being protected,” said Indu Poornima, MD, cardiologist and director of the AHN Cardio-Oncology program. “We used to wait until a patient showed symptoms of heart damage, and then not a lot could be done for them. Now we work together with patients’ oncologists and proactively monitor at-risk patients.”

Patients typically referred to Dr. Poornima include those who have a prior heart history, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Oncologists also consider a patient’s age, the type of drug therapy they were prescribed, and the duration of the treatment period. Heart damage, including congestive heart failure, heart attacks, and arrhythmias, can develop within the first year after cancer treatments begin, and even several years later.

Ahead of the game with expertise and technology
Sherry was referred to Dr. Poornima by her AHN Cancer Institute oncologist Jane Raymond, MD, because she had taken the chemotherapy drug Adriamycin for an extended period of time and then recently experienced shortness of breath. She had a specialized echocardiography with contrast and strain imaging, which showed no signs of heart damage. However, Dr. Poornima will continue to monitor Sherry and have her return every six months for the same imaging procedure.

“It’s all about picking up the early signs and following patients more closely to prevent future heart problems,” Dr. Poornima said. “As cancer chemotherapy is evolving rapidly into very molecular-based agents, they have effects on the heart as well. And more cancer drugs are being added to the list of potentially cardio-toxic drugs.

Having one of the few Cardio-Oncology programs in the country, AHN offers a full range of imaging techniques and diagnostic studies in addition to the state-of-the-art echocardiography used for Sherry’s case. These advanced capabilities – available at Allegheny General Hospital and the Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion – allow for early detection of heart and blood vessel damage and arrhythmias.

If an oncology patient is found to have a cardiovascular condition, Dr. Poornima treats them appropriately according to guideline-directed therapy, which may encompass advanced interventional and electrophysiological services at AHN Cardiovascular Institute.

Sherry said her confidence in the care she receives at AHN continues to grow because she recognizes that a team is working together to ensure that her overall health and well-being is continually monitored and addressed.

“At first I considered myself a breast cancer survivor, but now I live with cancer. It’s like a chronic condition,” she said. “Cancer isn’t what it used to be; it’s not a death sentence anymore. Our daughter was 6 when I was diagnosed, and now she’s 22, so I’ve had a lot of living after that and a lot more to go.”

AHN Cardio-Oncology Program
For more information:
Allegheny General Hospital: 412-359-4744
Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion: 878-332-4217
Or visit: ahn.org/cardiovascular-institute

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