Radiation is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease in cancer patients. Modern radiotherapy techniques reduce the volume of the heart and major coronary vessels exposed to high doses, but some exposure is often unavoidable. Radiation damage to the myocardium is caused primarily by inflammatory changes in the microvasculature, leading to microthrombi and occlusion of vessels, reduced vascular density, perfusion defects and focal ischemia. This is followed by progressive myocardial cell death and fibrosis. Clinical studies also demonstrate regional perfusion defects in non-symptomatic breast cancer patients after radiotherapy. The incidence and extent of perfusion defects are related to the volume of left ventricle included in the radiation field. Irradiation of endothelial cells lining large vessels also increases expression of inflammatory molecules, leading to adhesion and transmigration of circulating monocytes. In the presence of elevated cholesterol, invading monocytes transform into activated macrophages and form fatty streaks in the intima, thereby initiating the process of atherosclerosis. Experimental studies have shown that radiation predisposes to the formation of inflammatory plaque, which is more likely to rupture and cause a fatal heart attack or stroke. This paper presents a brief overview of the current knowledge on mechanisms for development of radiation-induced cardiovascular and cerebrovascular damage. It does not represent a comprehensive review of the literature, but reference is made to several excellent recent reviews on the topic.
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Vol. 174 • No. 6b