When Linda Carlyle discovered in 1997 that the chemotherapy used to treat her breast cancer could permanently damage her heart, she chose the lesser of two evils.
"When it comes down to dying now or dealing with heart disease later," she said, "I decided I would rather deal with heart disease later."
Carlyle was lucky. Recent tests through the Kansas University Breast Cancer Survivorship Center showed her heart suffered little to no damage from her treatment.
In the past, few options existed outside of simply pulling sufferers off chemotherapy and hoping for the best.
Dr. Charles Porter, head of the cardio-oncology program at KU's Cancer Center, is heading up a team hoping to develop a form of treatment to help cancer sufferers maintain a healthy heart while continuing chemotherapy treatment.
Some say the treatment, which is one of several facets of the survivorship program dedicated to normalizing the lives of woman who have completed cancer treatment, is showing early promise.
Patients either suffering from heart conditions after they have finished treatment or those currently undergoing chemotherapy take a mix of ACE inhibitors and beta blockers. Both are drugs often used in combating heart disease as well as suppressing high blood pressure.
Over time, Porter said, patients are given these drugs in tandem with an altered dose of chemotherapy. The hope is by treating the potential heart disease while administering drugs with a high likelihood of heart damage, they can keep the heart healthy.
Porter cautioned it was too early and the patient group too small to say whether the treatment will have positive long-term effects. Porter began this type of treatment in late 2007 and KU is one of only three cancer centers undertaking similar tests.
The treatment ties heavily into the survivorship program, which takes on women who are recovering from breast cancer treatment and tries to normalize their health.
Jennifer Klemp, program director for the survivorship program, said women who had been treated for breast cancer and were either in remission or had a nonmalignant tumor could qualify for the program.
The project began in 2007 after breast cancer specialists at KU noticed what they believed was the lack of a specific cancer recovery program. Klemp said of all the other survivorship programs she had seen, most attempted to go too broad in scope.
By focusing specifically on breast cancer, Klemp said, doctors hoped to become experts at helping survivors of breast cancer regain a sense of normalcy. After that, they would eventually try and translate successes into survivors of other cancers.
Officials are still trying to work out some bugs, however.
Klemp said after her group presented initial findings to a group of peers, they discovered that while they were doing a good job treating the cancer, the issue of overall women's health had been lost.
"We're doing a good job taking care of the cancer part of this," she said. "But, we're missing out on the whole bigger women's health picture."
Carlyle said she felt the program helped to fulfill one of the most important things necessary for women going through breast cancer: a support network.
"You need support outside your family," she said. "Not to say they won't be there for you, but it can't be understated how much it helps to have someone who has gone through the same thing."
And Carlyle considers herself lucky. Both her mother and her mother's mother died in their 50s from breast cancer. So, in a sense, Carlyle said she anticipated her cancer. But her hope is that through the studies at the survivorship program at KU and similar initiatives around the country, something can be done to help her daughters.
"I know they have a chance of having breast cancer," she said. "But, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that."