Does Broken Heart Syndrome Increase Cancer Risk?

The loss of a close loved one can lead to pain that is more than just emotional.  Actually, the extreme stress that accompanies the experience has been linked to physical troubles in the heart, a condition called Takotsubo syndrome.  The condition is also—and more fittingly—called: Broken Heart Syndrome.

Broken heart syndrome can feel like a heart attack, characterized by sudden onset of intense chest pain accompanied by shortness of breath. The American Heart Association describes that it is different from a heart attack, though, because the symptoms come as a reaction to a sudden surge of stress hormones, typically after an intense emotional experience. Physical trauma, surgery, severe infections, and respiratory failure could also contribute to broken heart syndrome.

But while this experience has often been seen as mostly benign, a new study warns that at least one in six people who experience broken heart syndrome may also, eventually, develop cancer.  Perhaps more importantly, broken heart syndrome patients who do develop cancer tend to live no more than five years after their diagnosis. 

This study observed 1,600 people diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, recruited from 26 different medical centers in nine countries. Within this cohort, of course, some patients were also diagnosed with cancer; and among those, 88 percent were women; the average age was 70.  

In the study population, cancer incidence was significantly higher than would be normally expected.  And this trend was true for all age groups and both genders.  While the ratio of cancer rate to broken heart syndrome varied, the relationship did remain consistent throughout the cohort. In the study, the most common type of cancer diagnosed was breast cancer but cancers of the digestive system, internal sex organs, respiratory tract, and skin were also somewhat persistent. 

Senior study author Dr. Christian Templin comments that the interplay between Takotsubo syndrome and cancer malignancies appears to be a strong one.  Therefore, the University of Hospital Zurich director of acute cardiac care says, “it should be recommended for Takotsubo syndrome patients to participate in cancer screening to improve overall survival.”  He also ads that the reverse is true:  that it may be prudent to assess Takotsubo syndrome risk among cancer patients. 

The results of this study have been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

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