RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Curtis Sears breathes in and out deeply as his doctor checks his vital signs. Getting to this point in this exam room at VCU Massey Cancer Center has been a journey, one that started 6,000 miles away in Brazil where he was living for his engineering job.
“I was tired,” Sears remembers that period last fall. “I couldn’t walk very far without being out of breath.”
Sears already knew he had a leaky heart valve, but a visit to his doctor in Brazil uncovered his fatigue was due to leukemia. Five units of blood and six days later, he was strong enough to fly home to Richmond and Massey, which developed a new program to address a growing medical issue.
Three years ago, Dr. Michael Hess helped to pioneer the Cardio-Oncology Program for patients like Sears, who require care for both their cancer and heart conditions.
“We end up having to treat both of them simultaneously,” Dr. Hess speaks of the fine balance the Cardio-Oncology team works to find for each patient.
He explains many chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments for cancer create cardiac problems or aggravate ones already diagnosed. For instance, anthracyclines, which are commonly used to treat breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma, can cause a weakening of the heart muscles.
“Curing the tumor but producing significant heart failure,” Dr. Hess describes the unfortunate side effect of these powerful cancer treatments in some patients. “Everything you do on one wing influences the other wing.”
The Cardio-Oncology clinic sees 500 patients in the hospital each year and 1,200 outpatient appointments. Dr. Hess expects those numbers will grow as the population gets older and incidents of both diseases spike with age.
It is why Dr. Hess recommends adopting a healthy lifestyle sooner rather than later in life to help prevent both cancer and heart conditions. Cutting out tobacco products and alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight with diet and exercise and monitoring cholesterol and blood pressure are crucial.
As for Sears, Dr. Hess is closely monitoring his treatment.
“If you passed him in the supermarket, he’d just be another man,” Dr. Hess says. “It’s kinda tough to imagine him having gone through all this cardiac stuff and all the acute leukemia therapy now followed by a bone marrow transplant doing as well as he is.”
Sears is thankful his twin sister is a complete bone marrow match. He also credits his doctors, loved ones and faith for boosting his recovery.
“You need to keep your mind busy or you get overwhelmed by the gravity, the razor edge of reality,” Sears shares how his support system has helped him pull through.
With a smile, the avid runner with 49 marathons under his belt is already celebrating another victory post-diagnosis.
“I ran a 5K last month and came in first for the 60-year-old group and third in the 50-year-olds,” he chuckles.