Because this is my third chance at life, I’m triply grateful for every little blessing that comes my way. And there are so very many blessings. Back to those in a bit, and to why I titled this chapter as I did.
If that fact about me is important for you to understand, here comes the most important single sentence in this little book: Heart disease is the number-one killer of American women. Number one. Numero uno. I know, I know: I've said that already. My excuse for saying it again is that sometimes repetition is called for when a lesson is overwhelmingly important, as this lesson is.
Here are a few vitally important facts for you to take to heart. (Pardon the bad heart humor; it’s also part of who I am. Groan.) If you have a heart, heart disease could be a problem for you.
- One in two women in the United States dies of heart disease or stroke; one in 30 dies of breast cancer.
- Thirty-eight percent of women will die within one year after having a heart attack.
- Within six years of having a heart attack, about 46% of women become disabled with heart failure. Two-thirds of those women who suffer a heart attack fail to make a full recovery.
- Coronary heart disease is the number-one killer of American women, but it’s also the leading cause of premature, permanent disability in the U.S. labor force, accounting for 19% of disability allowance by the social security administration.
Why are these things true? I believe wholeheartedly that we women don’t take ourselves seriously enough. By the time we have been diagnosed with heart disease, our hearts are already deeply compromised.
Women who go to the emergency room with chest pain and are told that it is not caused by a heart attack or angina might want to get a second opinion. Such pains are often ascribed to something else (as was the case with me), but we cannot be content to wait helplessly for the medical community to figure out what’s troubling us. We have to be our own advocates and use all the information that is available.
We have to be aware of new symptoms—for instance, unusual fatigue, shortness of breath, and anxiety. I had all those symptoms for over a month, and I see now that they were different, and more severe, than simply being tired or anxious about being late for work. We have to ask about our cholesterol levels and our risk for heart attack and stroke and find out if we need to be on medication.
And then there are all the women who have heart disease and don’t want to talk about it. For some reason, heart disease tends to be linked with being old. Trust me, I know. Whenever I wear my “Survivor” T-shirt, I’m always asked if it’s because of the TV show. When I respond that I wear the shirt because I have heart disease, the conversation stops cold. Oh, sometimes I’m complimented that I don’t look old!
Even after reading this book, you may still be thinking, “This isn’t about me. I don’t have heart disease.” But you may have habits or conditions that can lead to heart disease, such as excess weight, smoking, and not enough physical activity. You may already know these and other risk factors, and you may even know your own risk factors. What you may not know is that if you have even one risk factor, you are much more likely to develop heart disease, with its many serious consequences. A damaged heart can damage your life, interfering with enjoyable activities and even your ability to do simple things, such as taking a walk or climbing steps.
The good news is that heart disease is a problem you can do something about. You have tremendous power to prevent it—and you can start today. By learning about your own personal risk factors and by making healthful changes in your diet, physical activity, and other daily habits, you can greatly reduce your risk of developing heart-related problems. Even if you already have heart disease, you can take steps to lessen its severity.
I have talked to countless hundreds and thousands of women at my seminars. When introduced, I do not allow my introducer to announce me as a woman with heart disease. I start out to overtake the room with my enthusiasm and strength. I share facts about women’s heart disease—the same facts I've shared with you. I make eye contact with everyone, including those who are trying hard to look uninterested. Then I carefully tell them about the atypical symptoms I felt and about my terrible experiences in the emergency room during my initial visit. Once I have their full attention, I know they will listen to how heart disease can affect their own lives.
And what do I tell them? Why, that heart disease is the number-one killer of American women, of course! No, I am never fearful that my seminars will be ill-attended or that I will have trouble getting the attention of younger women. Women, because they are women, relate to another woman, no matter what the age difference, when she talks about the heart by showing her own heart. When it comes to this vitally important topic, there are no meaningful differences that can be caused by age, size, ethnicity, or social or marital status. All women are equal—and equally in danger—when it comes to this topic.
Each time I share my story, women approach me afterwards and open their hearts. They share about relatives with heart disease. Some divulge secretly, as if ashamed, that they have heart disease themselves. Women tell, knowing their own family history, that they live in fear. They tell me that they appreciate the encouragement I give them to stand strong and go back to their doctors armed with information from one who has been there.
I tell women, again and again: Trust yourselves. Listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Know the facts.
One time I found myself playing the role of the “heart attack survivor guest” on a national TV show. Beside me sat a so-called expert on heart disease (I’ll name no names here). After hearing a five-minute version of my experience in the emergency room, the host asked, “When do we know it’s the 11th hour, time to deal with our symptoms?” The expert answered (before I could), “If you are under 50 years old, you are protected from heart disease.” As I tried to maintain my composure in the face of such glaring misinformation, he added that women of childbearing age need not worry about heart disease. (Maybe, I thought, he’s a colleague of the doctor I saw in the emergency room—the one who prescribed antacids and sent me home.)
Wow, I ranted to myself, my 20-year-old daughter can stop taking her statin! (Statins are a class of drugs used to lower blood cholesterol. They work in your liver to block a substance needed to make cholesterol. They may also help your body reabsorb cholesterol that has accumulated in plaques on your artery walls.) And now she doesn't need to worry that her bad cholesterol numbers are off the chart! Plus I can save over $600 a year on her medications! Hooey.
After the TV show had been taped, and after the so-called expert had departed, I shared with the producers and the host the same information that I have shared with you. In other words, the medical expert was dead wrong. On my way to the airport I answered my cell phone and was delighted that the producers asked me to come back and tape another show. No “experts” this time—just me. Job well done.
Hear me, please. It does matter if your father, uncle, or grandmother had heart disease. Ignorance is not bliss; it can be fatal. From my own personal experience, nine out of 10 of the women I speak to do not know (or have not accepted) that heart disease is a very real danger in their lives.
Women have the gift of intuition. Use it. We know our own bodies, and we know—somewhere inside us—when something isn’t right. We need to take the time to listen and take care of ourselves. One last time, the common heart disease symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, chest or back discomfort or pain that can spread to the arms, neck, back, or jaw. Many of these symptoms occur during periods of physical activity or stress. You should tell your healthcare provider about any worrisome or annoying symptoms that you experience, especially those that are new. Remember, though, that many women with heart disease experience no symptoms at all, which is why regular checkups are so important. So listen to your body. You must do it. No one can do it for you.
Finally, since the symptoms of heart attack can be different in women than in men, women may not recognize their symptoms and may delay getting to the hospital for treatment. Once they get to the hospital, they are often not given prompt or appropriate treatments for a heart attack. Therefore, you must be your own advocate. Learn from my experience. Take steps today to change your life.
Back to the importance of blessings. Though I’ve joked about taking care of myself, I really have made many changes to my lifestyle. Major changes, in fact. None of these changes have killed me (whew!), but without these changes I would likely be killing myself. Each day challenges me to incorporate these changes, and to be good to my body. Yes, life is precious, and when you hear someone say, “Life goes so quickly,” please take it to heart. I do. Literally.
In this, my third chance at life, I notice everything. I’m acutely aware of how I reacted before to, say, a dirty kitchen—how easily I would allow this and countless other minor annoyances to get the best of me. Now I rarely find anything upsetting enough to warrant an outburst of anger; when I do, I realize that I’m wasting precious moment of life.
The Serenity Prayer has become very real to me:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Serenity had not been a part of my life. I had to look it up in the dictionary! Serenity: calmness, peacefulness, composure, coolness (my favorite). I want to be cool! I can’t change the fact that I have heart disease. I can’t change other people. But I can change me.
In this third life of mine, I long to spend more time with my mom and her husband. Mothers and daughters have rare relationships. We are so much to each other—more than a friend could ever be. I understand so much more now about how helpless my mom felt about my illnesses and not being able to fix them for me. I am learning to deal with seeing her new age-related challenges, and I want to be a strong and healthy daughter for her and her husband (she remarried many years ago, to a wonderful man), just as they have always been there for me and my children.
My mother is my inspiration. A few months after my heart attack, she accompanied me to the cardiologist. My mom told him that she was extremely healthy; she asked if it would help me if she gave me her arteries or veins. Think about what I just wrote. She was offering her life for mine. How much more blessed could I be?
I’m so proud of all three of my girls, but I’m learning not to define myself by them, and not to define myself by my heart disease. Instead, I define myself as one who is becoming a better human being, a more caring and accepting person. Which brings me to accepting my husband Tim’s unconditional love through sickness and health. I rejoice in the fact that we made choices along the way to stay partners, when we could have chosen not to do so. My heart overflows with warmth and happiness. I’m excited that I get to grow old with husband, my buddy, my friend.
I take the time to sit outside. My husband says the birds are my birds. I drop birdseed everywhere so they will enjoy the backyard with us. Enjoying my girlfriends and taking the time to nurture those relationships. Drinking a glass of wine to end my day, saying a little prayer, “Help me learn to relax, give me peace with my past, and contentment with where and who I am today.” I love daydreaming, planning my future to include barbecues with my grandchildren, laughing with my daughters and their own families.
Oh, and yes, accepting a few extra pounds and some new wrinkles, and not minding it when someone tells me I look good for my age. Yes, my age. I’m here—and I’m so terribly thankful to be here.
The phone rings. It’s the cardiologist’s office confirming my appointment for tomorrow. And so, my new friends, be aware of the battle we have with our hearts. Take care. Trust your intuition. Make the time to sit down with your doctor, and make the time to sit down with yourself. Throw a couple of extra dishes of vegetables on the table. Most of all, love yourself. You'll do your heart a lot of good.
With that, I must put on my walking shoes, grab an apple, and say good-bye.
This is an excerpt from the book "Surviving" available on Amazon.