National data show that women who have had breast cancer are at higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than women who have never had cancer. But, why is that? Susan Everson-Rose, PhD, MPH, a professor in the Department of Medicine’s Division of General Internal Medicine and associate director of the Program in Health Disparities Research (PHDR), and Anne Blaes, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation, are studying this question in order to identify preventative treatments that avoid the use of more medications.

There is some overlap in the risk factors for cancer and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, “We know that, in some cases, cardiovascular disease is a risk for these women due to the chemotherapy and radiation that causes damage to the heart and blood vessels,” Dr. Everson-Rose said. “We also know some other medications, called aromatase inhibitors that are used with breast cancer patients, affects blood vessel wall changes, which are some of the earliest indicators of heart disease.”

Two-thirds of women diagnosed with breast cancer have tumors that are estrogen positive, and the standard care is the medication, aromatase inhibitors, which stops the release of estrogen in the body.

“Women who are taking aromatase inhibitors may experience blood vessel wall changes. This can be contributing to why they are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than women who have never had breast cancer,” Dr. Everson-Rose said. “We also know that these patients experience high levels of stress, which can also cause blood vessel wall changes. Our question is whether implementing a stress management program may help prevent further changes within the blood vessel walls in these patients.”

Of particular interest to Drs. Everson-Rose and Blaes are mind-body interventions, and specifically Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week program that incorporates breathing practices, gentle yoga, tai-chi and meditation to teach patients how to be in tune with their bodily systems and how to be non-reactive.

“No one has previously looked at these blood vessel wall changes in relation to this mindfulness intervention,” Dr. Everson-Rose said. “The idea may or may not work, but we will find out.”

Drs. Everson-Rose and Blaes received funding from the Masonic Cancer Center to conduct a pilot study with breast cancer survivors to address this question. Before and after the eight-week intervention, participants will complete questionnaires, have their blood pressure measured, undergo a blood draw for markers of inflammation, cholesterol levels and markers of cellular aging and complete a state-of-the-art assessment of blood vessel wall function. 

Led by a certified MBSR instructor and team member from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, the intervention will also include a control group who will receive weekly health information and stress management tips—instead of the MBSR intervention—but complete all of the same assessments.

“We are really excited about this study,” Dr. Everson-Rose said. “Again, this has never been tested before, so we are looking forward to trying it out, and ultimately, helping these patients.”