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Why American Heart Month matters to cancer survivors

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

February is American Heart Month. All through February, we seek to raise awareness about heart health and urge people to prevent heart disease. One may ask, though, how did February become American Heart Month?

President Lyndon B. Johnson established American Heart Month starting in February 1964. President Johnson urged “the people of the United States to give heed to the nationwide problem of the heart and blood-vessel diseases (cardiovascular disease), and to support the programs required to bring about its solution.” The designation of American Heart Month coincided with the Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health in 1964. This landmark publication was the first federal government report to link smoking and negative health impacts, including lung cancer and heart disease.

Since then, each February, a wide array of public, private and governmental organizations focus efforts on shedding light on how far we’ve come and the work that needs to continue. While annual deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke have declined since the first Surgeon General’s report, heart disease continues to be a public health burden and a leading cause of death for both men and women. Cardiovascular disease accounts for one of every four deaths in the United States every year, and many of these are preventable.

Unfortunately, cancer survivors have an elevated risk of death from cardiovascular disease. We recently assessed more than 3 million cancer survivors from 1973 to 2015, and cancer patients have on average two to six times higher mortality risk from cardiovascular disease than the general population.

This is a key message that every cardiologist and cancer patient needs to hear. Specifically, we observed that cardiovascular disease mortality risk was highest in an acute phase (in the year following a cancer diagnosis) and then subsequently elevated in a chronic phase (moire than 5 years into cancer survivorship). Cardio-oncology is a discipline at the intersection of oncology/hematology and cardiology, with a particular focus on mitigating and managing the cardiovascular diseases of cancer patients, either pre-existing or developing.

Thus, each February, we focus on motivating Americans to adopt healthy lifestyles to prevent cardiovascular diseases (which encompasses heart disease). Research shows that we’re more successful at meeting personal health goals when we join forces with others.

One way to inspire and support each other is through social media. This year, use #OurHearts when engaging in heart-healthy daily activities. Some things you can try:

  • Walk and talk on the phone
  • Use/create a standing desk
  • Park further away from an entrance
  • Work out during movies/TV episodes
  • Get up during TV commercials or streaming breaks
  • Set a phone reminder to get up
  • Take the stairs
  • Stand during Zoom or other virtual meetings
  • Use wait time (microwave, on hold, etc.) for bodyweight exercises
  • Dance to music during chores
  • Sign up for a charity walk/run

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