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Intermountain addresses rare side effects from certain chemotherapy treatments

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MURRAY, Utah (Intermountain Healthcare) – Intermountain Healthcare launches collaborative, patient-centered approach to treat cancer patients who are at risk for heart problems. 

Background: 

Early cancer detection and improved treatments have allowed many patients with cancer to live longer. However, some patients may be at an increased risk for cardiovascular complications and other medical issues, due to certain cancer treatments. 

That’s why Intermountain Healthcare has developed a new Cardio-Oncology program. 

The Intermountain Cardio-Oncology program at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City was developed to help people who undergo cancer treatment who are at increased risk to develop heart problems. Some cancer treatments, including radiation to the chest and certain types of chemotherapy, may increase the risk for heart disease.  Some heart complications can occur during cancer therapy, while others may develop decades after treatment. 

The Intermountain Cardio-Oncology program includes a multidisciplinary team that specializes in providing state-of-the-art care for cancer patients with cardiovascular disease – or for those patients who at increased risk for developing heart issues. 

The team includes cardiologists, oncologists, and radiation oncologists who collaborate to provide comprehensive, coordinated heart care for people with cancer. They are dedicated to caring for people in any phase of cancer treatment who are at risk for developing heart disease or who have existing heart disease. 

Services include consultation before cancer treatment begins to help assess risk for heart complications, especially for people who have a history of (or certain risk factors for) heart disease. Cardiologists can make recommendations to oncologists to minimize potential heart toxicity from cancer treatments. 

Additionally, they provide a plan for monitoring of heart function during and after certain types of cancer treatment, evaluate heart symptoms that arise during or after cancer treatment, and monitor and manage heart complications that may arise during or after cancer treatment.

Patients like Copper Hills High School teacher Megan Butler are appreciative of the new program. 

In January, Butler learned she was the 1 in 8 women who would be diagnosed with breast cancer – an illness that had claimed the life of her sister. “I never thought it would be me,” she said.  

During diagnostic testing, doctors would also discover something even more serious; Butler also had a tumor in her heart. “The tumor was the size of an egg,” she noted. “The doctor told me it was one of the largest tumors he had ever seen.” 

Butler would have open heart surgery to remove the tumor and she would then immediately begin chemotherapy to fight stage 2A breast cancer. Her oncologist recommended that Butler also remain in the care of a cardiologist through the Intermountain Cardio-Oncology Program. 

“Cancer patients get exposed to a number of medications that can cause heart problems,” says Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute Cardiologist Dr. David Min. “It is still something that we don’t have great data on. It’s a new area we are developing.”

“It is important to note that most chemotherapy medications do not frequently affect the heart,” said Intermountain oncologist Dr. Margaret Van Meter.“The risk of heart problems is related to which chemotherapy medications are received, and the risk with those medications is higher for patients who are over age 60 or have other pre-existing conditions that affect the heart, such as such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity.” 

Tifny Iacona went through intense chemo and radiation treatment last year.

“I was diagnosed with stage 1A breast cancer I had an aggressive form.”

When she took a trip to the slot canyons in southern Utah this past summer, she noticed something wasn’t right.

“This is the first activity I really had since I completed treatment. I was so out of breath, struggling, weak, my heart was racing.”

She thought maybe she was just out of shape.

“I wasn’t thinking about my heart at all.”

But after a series of tests and screenings, doctors at Intermountain Healthcare discovered signs of a mild form of heart failure.

‘There was a protein that was present in my blood that is typically only present in patients who are in heart failure.”

Tifny and health experts say don’t let potential side effects deter you from getting life-saving treatment.

Early detection was key for Tifny. Dr. McCulloch says she’s getting the right treatment and medication to help protect her heart, hopefully, reverse the damage and prevent further damage.

“I’m so grateful to know there is this partnership and that we caught it early that’s what’s also important. We caught it early and my heart would’ve continued to become more toxic and I wouldn’t have really known.”

Intermountain Healthcare is only a handful of healthcare networks in the nation that currently offers a Cardio-Oncology Program to patients and physicians. 

“This has provided our patients with a sense of comfort knowing that we are treating their cancer to the best of our ability, and also working as a coordinated team to treat them as a whole person,” said Dr. Van Meter.

Currently, the Cardio-Oncology Program is available at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. Intermountain is currently working to expand the program from Logan to St. George. 

“We are working to do the right thing for a vulnerable population,” said Dr. Min. “Cancer has touched us all and this is a fantastic relationship with oncology, radiology, our nurses, and the entire medical community.”

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