Heart disease and cancer: Get the facts

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hand holding heart shaped rock Cancerwise.JPGBy Liza Sanchez

I recently organized my closet, determined to find some old photos taken at the Houston Zoo during my childhood.

The photos evoke fond memories for me. In one of them taken in the late 1970s, I am proudly posing in front of the lion water fountain. That fountain is still a welcoming fixture in the zoo.

Years later, I find myself back in a place of wonder and discovery. I now volunteer at the Houston Zoo as a veterinary cardiac imaging specialist along with Jose Banchs, M.D., medical director for MD Anderson's Echocardiography Laboratory. We perform cardiac examinations on the primates such as chimpanzees and orangutans.

The animals' anatomies are very closely related to those of humans. So, volunteering at the zoo allows us to use our expertise to help out the primates. It also reminds me how important it is for us humans to take good care of our hearts.

Heart technology at MD Anderson
MD Anderson is one of only a handful of echocardiography labs in the world to use the latest techniques and ultrasound technology to evaluate our human cancer patients.

When we're dealing with cancer patients, the difference of a few percentage points in ejection fraction (the measure of overall heart function) can make a difference in treatment.

This knowledge comes in very handy in our collaboration at the zoo since we can confidently and accurately detect heart problems in the animals.

Heart disease: A common cause of death

In November 2009, Dr. Banchs and I performed our first ultrasound on a Bornean orangutan named Doc. Our findings confirmed what the veterinarians originally suspected. Doc had heart disease. Sadly, Doc died of cardiomyopathy -- weakening of the heart muscle -- in August 2011.

The zoo staff informed us that heart disease is the most common form of death among apes.

Heart disease is also the number one cause of death in the United States for both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prevention starts with a healthy lifestyle
One in four human deaths per year are attributed to heart disease. And, each year 935,000 people in America have a heart attack.

So, if heart disease is so prevalent, what can you do to prevent it? A lot, actually.

First, know the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack:

1. Chest pain or chest discomfort
2. Pain or discomfort that occurs in the upper body such as the arms, back, neck, jaw and upper stomach
3. Shortness of breath
4. Nausea, feeling of lightheadedness, or sweating
Most people are aware that high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and smoking are major risk factors for developing heart disease. Other risk factors include diabetes, a poor diet, being overweight and lack of physical activity. Consuming too many alcoholic drinks on a regular basis will also put you at risk.

Protect your heart by incorporating more physical activity in to your daily routine. Walking is a great way to get started. Aim to eat healthier by lowering your salt and fat intake. Enjoy more fruits and learn to love vegetables. If you smoke, stop. Taking these steps may help to ensure good cardiac health.

Cancer and heart health are connected

So, why is MD Anderson Cancer Center encouraging you to protect your heart?

For one thing, most recommendations for preventing heart disease may also help prevent cancer. Exercise, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a plant-based diet also have been shown to reduce your risk of cancer.

But, if you do develop cancer, it's best to have a healthy heart. A healthy heart can handle aggressive cancer treatments much better than an unhealthy one. And, if you undergo chemotherapy, you won't be able to start treatment until your doctor has addressed any pre-existing heart disease.

What are you waiting for? Start showing your heart some love today.

Liza Sanchez is a supervisor in MD Anderson's Cardiovascular Lab. 

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