Did Cancer Cause Kara Kennedy’s Heart Attack?

Some families seem to have more than their share of tragedy.

The Kennedys are one of those.

Friday night, Kara Kennedy Allen, the only daughter of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, died at the age of 51. The oldest of his three children suffered a heart attack after working out at a gym in Northwest Washington, D.C. Her sudden death shocked her friends and family because she appeared to be in such great shape, after recovering from what was thought to be inoperable lung cancer in 2002.

Following surgery, Kara began a rigorous exercise routine and healthy diet plan; her mother Joan Bennett Kennedy told the Boston Globe in 2007 that her daughter was completely cancer free and running five miles a day.

Despite her vastly improved health, the cancer treatment “took quite a toll on her and weakened her physically,” brother and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy said, “Her heart gave out.”

Cancer runs in Kara’s family. Her father Ted died of a malignant brain tumor and her brother Ted Jr. battled bone cancer and lost a leg to the disease when he was just 12.

Experts have known for years that high stress levels coupled with heightened anxiety can lead to various heart problems. A cancer diagnosis is a significant stressor in a person’s life. Studies in the past have shown that psychologically traumatic events, like losing a loved one or surviving a major disaster— can raise a survivor’s risk of a heart problem.

In addition to the psychological stress of having cancer, radiotherapy and chemotherapy drugs can have long term physical effects (See our story on Dorothy Hamill).  Although treatments are designed to destroy cancer cells,  healthy cells in the heart and other organs can also be damaged.

Heart problems, such as an enlarged, weakened heart (cardiomyopathy) and congestive heart failure, have been linked to the use of doxorubicin and epirubicin, two chemotherapy drugs.

The risk of heart problems is even greater when radiation therapy is aimed near the heart. Other research shows that cancer patients treated with chemotherapy face increased risk for blood clots, which can lead to strokes.

While thousands of healthy women like Kara die of cancer every year, heart disease and stroke kill 40% of women every year — that’s about twice the number of all the cancers combined!

Have you undergone treatment for cancer?

Has it left you with any other medical problems?

What kind of things are you doing to stay healthy after cancer treatment?

 

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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