The term “broken heart,” used to describe a painful response to an intense emotional experience, isn’t just a figure of speech. It turns out “broken heart syndrome” is actually an established medical condition, and a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that it may be linked to cancer. Specifically, the study found that one in six people with broken heart syndrome also had cancer.
Broken Heart Syndrome: A Real Medical ConditionREAD MORE
When someone goes through something emotionally traumatic—be it a breakup, the loss of a loved one, or intense financial hardship—the heart’s main pumping chamber may enlarge temporarily, hindering its ability to pump blood as well as it should. The condition could also occur after something intensely good happens, such as winning the lottery (kind of like crying happy tears, only more dangerous for the heart.)
The AHA says that symptoms associated with broken heart syndrome are similar to that of a heart attack. People might feel shortness of breath, for instance, or feel pain in their chest.
But interestingly, with broken heart syndrome—unlike a heart attack—researchers haven’t identified heart muscle damage or blocked arteries as a cause.
The Link Between Broken Heart Syndrome and Cancer
The new study, which was based on observations from the International Takotsubo Registry, took place at 26 centers in nine different countries and enrolled over 1,600 people with broken heart syndrome.
The researchers tracked these participants closely, and found that over 267 of them (one in six, or 16.6 percent) also had cancer. Interestingly, the vast majority of people with both broken heart syndrome and cancer (87.6 percent) were female. The most common type of cancer that the researchers noted was breast cancer.
Does Broken Heart Syndrome Cause Cancer, or Vice Versa?
Because this study was the type that only examines an association (through observation), the researchers couldn’t deduce whether the broken heart actually caused cancer or vice versa. More research is needed to pinpoint a reason behind the link.
“The mechanism by which malignancy and cancer treatment may promote the development of broken heart syndrome should be explored,” Dr. Christian Templin of the University Heart Center Zurich at The University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, who was the senior author of the study, shared in an AHA press release.
But even though the researchers don’t know for sure, they did note in the study that the patients with cancer who had broken heart syndrome were less likely to report an emotional trigger for their broken heart.
Specifically, more people without cancer reported that their broken heart triggers had to do with emotional triggers, including interpersonal conflict, grief and loss, financial or employment problems, anger and frustration, and panic and anxiety.
Emotional stressors generally were less common in patients with cancer compared with those who were cancer-free. This goes against the idea that the emotional event of being diagnosed with cancer was a trigger for developing broken heart syndrome.
“Even though the psychological burden of [cancer] could potentially increase sympathetic output, this was not the case in our analysis,” Dr. Templin said. “As emotional stressors were less common in patients with malignancy [cancer] compared with those without.”
What Triggered the Broken Heart Syndrome for People With Cancer, Then?
The counterintuitive findings (that is, that patients with broken heart syndrome and cancer were less likely to say their broken hearts came from an emotional event) could suggest that some other factor (maybe a physical, non-emotional one) gave the patients with cancer the same condition that people with emotional triggers develop.
Dr. Templin was careful to note that more research was needed on this, but he did say that the study’s findings “provide an additional reason to investigate the potential cardiotoxic effects of chemotherapy”—meaning he thinks future studies should explore whether perhaps chemotherapy could be negatively affecting the heart, potentially causing broken heart syndrome.
Does My Broken Heart Put Me at Risk for Cancer?
The study is certainly an interesting one—but it’s important not to read the findings and immediately assume that you’re going to get cancer because you’ve been devastated by, say, an emotional breakup. That is not what this study found.
Instead, Dr. Templin’s takeaways from the study were two-fold: one was that “patients with broken heart syndrome might benefit if screened for cancer to improve their overall survival,” and the other was that cancer doctors should consider the possibility of broken heart syndrome among their patients who “experience chest pain, shortness of breath, or abnormalities on their electrocardiogram” during cancer treatment.