What to Know About Ministrokes & Cancer

February 1, 2024

Approximately 240,000 people in the United States experience TIAs each year. TIAs are transient ischemic attacks, also known as ministrokes, that temporarily block the blood supply to the brain. Do not let the term “mini” fool you – TIAs can be just as dangerous as a regular stroke. And it’s important to note that recent research has linked an increased risk of TIAs to cancer patients or those who have had cancer. It is estimated that about 15 percent of cancer patients will experience a TIA or stroke in their lifetime, with about 10 percent of stroke patients who are hospitalized also having cancer.

So, if you or a loved one have cancer, here is what you should know about TIAs and stroke.

Link Between Cancer & Stroke

Several years ago, a study found an increased risk of TIAs to certain cancers. Since that time, more research has been completed – and continues – with results finding that individuals with cancer or who previously had cancer have a higher risk for TIA or stroke. With more and more people entering remission, the mortality risk of those who had cancer dying from stroke has also increased.

While more research is being done to understand this link and prevention, the leading cause is attributed to the way the properties of a patient’s blood change during cancer, as well as a side effect of some drug treatments. Sometimes referred to as “stickiness” in the blood, specific biomaterials in the blood can increase, making the blood thicker. This thickening increases the risk of blood clots, which lead to TIAs, strokes, and other health risks. Compounding this effect is that some cancer patients feel physically weak or have limited mobility, which further increases the risk of blood clots and stroke.

TIAs Are a Severe Warning

Approximately 80 percent of strokes are ischemic, meaning that a blockage in the body’s cardiovascular system has prevented blood from getting to the brain. All TIAs are ischemic, and they differ from regular strokes because symptoms can last a few minutes to several hours. However, just because the symptoms are temporary and usually resolve on their own does not mean you should not see a doctor. As soon as you or a loved one experiences a stroke symptom, you are in a critical emergency and should seek medical help immediately.

Seeking medical attention is vital because research shows that 20 to 30 percent of TIA patients will go on to have a regular stroke within the next three to six months, with at least half of those having a stroke in the next few days. TIAs are your body’s way of sending out a bat signal that you need immediate medical attention because TIAs are caused by the same risk factors that lead to ischemic strokes.

TIAs: What to Look For & Next Steps

When looking for signs of a TIA or stroke, all you need to remember is FAST:

  • Facial Drooping: One side of a person’s face is slack, drooping, or numb.
  • Arm Weakness: Lifting both arms straight in the air, one arm cannot stay up for more than 10 seconds or drifts down.
  • Speech Slurred or Garbled: A person is having trouble communicating because they cannot control their mouth muscles or seems confused and cannot answer basic questions.
  • Time to Call 911: Once TIA or stroke symptoms appear, this is a dangerous situation, and it is important to contact emergency services.

Other symptoms of TIA can include blindness in one or both eyes, double vision, vertigo, loss of balance or coordination, sudden severe headache with no apparent cause, nausea and vomiting, neck stiffness, memory loss, abrupt emotional or personality changes, agitation and confusion, or fainting. Additionally, if a person is experiencing multiple TIAs, the signs and symptoms can change based on the part of the brain being impacted. It’s also important to note that TIAs can have the same signs as other neurological conditions, which is why seeking immediate medical treatment is so critical.

FAST is also important to remember because receiving medical observation within the first 60 minutes after symptoms are presented can help identify the cause of the stroke and determine treatment options. This proactiveness will hopefully minimize any damage and prevent a severe stroke from occurring later. Treatment could include surgery, prescribed medications, therapy, and lifestyle changes such as no smoking or vaping, lowering cholesterol, and more.

If you have cancer or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer and has a family or personal history with the risk factors of stroke below, you need to talk to your doctor about your risk:

  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoker or heavy alcohol use
  • Heart disease

Make sure that your cancer care team is aware of your family and personal medical history. Ask your physician how you can lower your risk, request to see a certified dietitian or nutritionist, and understand all possible side effects of your cancer treatment. Most importantly, if you experience any TIA or stroke symptoms, do not ignore them – see a doctor right away!