The Lonely Hearts Club
You probably won’t die from a broken heart, but a new study finds it could contribute to a future cancer diagnosis.

It attacks out of nowhere, with little warning and, usually, no definitive cause. We’re not talking about cancer, but takotsubo syndrome, aka broken heart syndrome. A July 2019 study released by the Journal of the American Heart Association revealed that one in six people diagnosed with broken heart syndrome will eventually receive a cancer diagnosis.

According to the Mayo Clinic, broken heart syndrome is characterized by a disruption in the heart’s normal pumping functioning, specifically caused by stress—either physical (like a serious medical condition requiring surgery) or emotional (like the death of a loved one, or preexisting mental illness such as depression or anxiety). Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain, and will usually resolve in a few days. “These emotional and physical stresses have the effect of weakening the heart’s ability to pump blood out to the rest of the body,” says Dr. Constantine Mantz, a radiation oncologist. “[It] also can cause spasm of the coronary blood vessels feeding the heart, leading to chest pain and possibly heart attacks.”

Broken heart syndrome is considered a “temporary condition” by the Mayo Clinic, but according to Mantz, “There is a very high incidence of cancer among these patients, […] far above what we see in the general population.” Even when patients recover from broken heart syndrome, their health should remain a top priority, and they should regularly be screened for cancer. Cancers with the highest occurrence in the study were breast cancer, followed by cancers of the gastrointestinal system, respiratory tract, internal sex organs, and skin.

One population, however, is at an even greater risk: Due to hormonal changes experienced by women over 50, menopause appears to be a contributing factor linking broken heart syndrome and cancer. “[These changes] are very drastic,” says Mantz, “and there’s no correlate in men.” Noting the July 2019 study, Mantz says that menopausal symptoms like increased anxiety and worsening depression resulted in 88 percent of those diagnosed with both broken heart syndrome and cancer to be women.

Due to hormonal changes experienced by women over 50, menopause appears to be a contributing factor linking broken heart syndrome and cancer.

According to Mantz, the recommended regime to stave off broken heart syndrome looks incredibly similar to those recommendations against cancer. “Proper diet, exercise, devoting time for relaxation techniques and other methods of alleviating stress appear on a very basic level to reduce these risks of anxiety, depression, medical illness, all of which [are] further linked to broken heart syndrome,” he says.

More studies need to be done to properly understand the link between broken heart syndrome and cancer. What doctors can do now is treat the damage done to the heart, recognize their patient’s higher likelihood of developing cancer, and recommend specialists when necessary. “We’re just beginning to understand how to diagnose it and treat some of the effects on the heart,” says Mantz. “There’s still obviously a long way to go.”


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