AURORA, Colo. (June 20, 2011)  Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women in the United States, but advances in treatment and early detection have improved the chances of survival from the disease. Yet these advances have not eliminated the importance of preventing other diseases still facing cancer survivors.

New research published in BioMed Central’s open access journal Breast Cancer Research has found that two thirds of women with breast cancer died from other causes and that over the length of the research study, cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death.

Cancer is a big killer and is responsible for about a quarter of all deaths,” said lead researcher Jennifer Patnaik, PhD of the Colorado School of Public Health, University of Colorado. “However breast cancer is not necessarily a death sentence and patients need to take care of their health to reduce their risk of dying from heart disease and other age-related diseases.”

Researchers from the University of Colorado analysed data from the SEER-Medicare database and followed over 60,000 women in the United States, who were at least 66 years old, from breast cancer diagnosis for up to 12 years. Almost half of the women were still alive at the end of the study. Of those who died, more than two thirds died from causes other than breast cancer, including cardiovascular disease, commonly called heart disease.  In comparing the causes of death, cardiovascular disease killed more women with breast cancer than the cancer itself.

“This analysis serves to remind us of the importance of treating the whole patient,” states Tim Byers, MD, MPH, co-researcher and associate dean for Public Health Practice.

Women diagnosed at a younger age, women with a high tumour grade or ER negative status, were at the greatest risk of dying from their disease. But, over the course of the study, it was found that older women who were more likely to have other health problems resulting from previous cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or diabetes, were the most likely to die from causes other than their cancer. The pattern of causes of death for these women matches that seen amongst older women in the general population, with cardiovascular disease being top of the list.

According to Byers, “Many heart attacks and strokes can be avoided by controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, and body weight.  Even after the life-threatening experience of cancer we need to be sure to promote heart health as part of treatment and recovery.”

The Colorado School of Public Health  is the first and only accredited school of public health in the Rocky Mountain Region, attracting top tier faculty and students from across the country, and providing a vital contribution towards ensuring our region’s health and well-being. Collaboratively formed by the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, and the University of Northern Colorado, the Colorado School of Public Health provides training, innovative research and community service to actively address public health issues, including chronic disease, access to health care, environmental threats, emerging infectious diseases, and costly injuries.


Contact: Jackie Brinkman, 303.724.1525; [email protected]

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