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Health Beat: Cancer treatment toxic to the heart

Published On: Mar 13 2014 03:32:17 PM EDT   Updated On: Mar 13 2014 05:34:53 PM EDT

You probably know when it comes to treating cancer, there are going to be risks.


You probably know when it comes to treating cancer, there are going to be risks.

What you may not know is the same chemotherapy treatments that prolong life can also have devastating consequences on our hearts.

Fit and strong are two words to describe Derek Fitzgerald, but his life is just getting back on track after doctors found a grapefruit-sized tumor in his stomach 10 years ago and diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.


"They said Derek, you’ve got cancer," Fitzgerald said.

His best shot at survival was chemotherapy. Fitzgerald underwent six rounds. It destroyed the cancer, but also damaged his heart.

He lived with severe heart failure for seven years. Then he was placed on the transplant list.

"Every night as I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I wondered, how long can I go through this? How much more can my body take before I just close my eyes and don't wake up?" Fitzgerald said.

It's a reality Dr. Mariell Jessup said few patients are aware of.

"In Derek’s case, there are chemotherapy agents that actually weaken the heart," said Jessup, professor of medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Penn Medicine Heart & Vascular Center.

In fact, Jessup said treatment may put a survivor at three to seven times greater risk of developing heart disease.

"So many patients that come here say, 'I just can’t believe something else happened to me,'" Jessup said.

Jessup recommends talking to your doctor about your risk and getting regular health screenings.

Fitzgerald found a new heart, and despite having never exercised before, began to, to honor his donor. Eight months post-transplant, he ran his first 5K. Two months later, he ran a half-marathon. Just two years later, he completed his first Ironman.

"Every time I get out there, it's a celebration of this chance that I’ve been given," Fitzgerald explained.

Fitzgerald is the first cancer and heart transplant survivor to finish an Ironman and his third chance at life keeps getting better. After struggling with infertility, he and his wife had their first baby this year.

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