Kara Kennedy's Heart May Have Taken 'Direct Hit' by Cancer Cure

Cardiologist says aggressive chemo and radiation could have damaged her heart.

ByABC News
September 19, 2011, 4:27 PM

Sept. 20, 2011— -- The heart attack death of Kara Kennedy, the latest in the tragedy-touched Kennedy dynasty, may have been related to the aggressive cancer treatment she underwent about a decade ago, say her brother and a cardiologist.

The 51-year-old daughter of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died Sept. 16 while working out at her Washington, D.C., gym.

"Depending upon where the lung cancer was, her heart could have taken a direct hit," said Dr. Sharonne N. Hayes, a cardiologist and founder of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic.

More details on Kara Kennedy's death are expected to be released by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate as funeral arrangements are being made for Wednesday.

Kara Kennedy was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and was initially told it was inoperable. But with her father's help, she found a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who removed part of her right lung, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Her brother, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, 44, said the grueling treatments had left his sister physically weakened.

"Her heart gave out," he told the Associated Press. "She's with dad."

Their father died of a brain tumor in 2009. Kara Kennedy's younger brother, Edward Jr., lost a leg to cancer as a child in 1973. Patrick Kennedy had surgery in 1988 to remove a noncancerous tumor from his spine.

For cancer patients who have aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, particularly in the chest, "there are some real heart risks," according to cardiologist Hayes, who did not treat Kara Kennedy. "The heart muscle can be weakened."

"This is probably widely underappreciated," she said. "People are so fearful of cancer, but in order to save people from cancer, other organs are put at risk -- the heart, in particular."

Her mother, Joan Bennett Kennedy, 75, said Kara Kennedy had fully recovered from cancer and led an active life, swimming and walking on the beach. "She was very healthy," her mother told the Associated Press. "That's why this is such a shock."

But others said that recently the late filmmaker recently did not look well.

"She was painfully thin," said one of Kara Kennedy's neighbors in Bethesda, Md., where Kennedy, who was recently divorced, lived. "After the illness, she looked aged. She avoided the spotlight and was definitely an exercise devotee."

Kennedy, who was also a television producer, had been married to professional sailor Michael Allen for 11 years, and their two children, Grace Kennedy Allen, 17, and Max Greathouse Allen, 15, lived with their father, according to neighbors.

Allen told the Associated Press that his ex-wife swam at her health club almost every day.

"The kids seemed really normal and happy," said one neighbor, who did not want to be identified. "They lived an average life, and she seemed very close to them."

The Kennedy family, including Kara Kennedy's mother, brother and some of the cousins, had a history of alcohol and drug abuse. She was instrumental in founding the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in 1990, where she sat on the board of directors.

"Because of her, the whole issue of drinking and pregnancy has been brought to the spotlight," Cathleen Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the organization, told the Boston Herald. "It would be hard to measure the number of lives she touched."