“It’s a matter of what can I do to make my heart stronger?”

Heart Healthcare Story

Nearly a decade after I was declared cancer-free, I received another life-threatening diagnosis – congestive heart failure.

Initially, I wasn’t concerned when I felt ill following a big family dinner. My stomach hurt and there was a burning sensation in my chest.

I figured I just overate, and it was indigestion. I tried taking an antacid, but nothing seemed to help.

A friend of the family who was a medical student suggested I may be having a heart attack and urged my family to take me to emergency.

But it wasn’t a heart attack. Testing revealed I had congestive heart failure. It was such a shock for me. I never realised that was a possibility.

Looking back, I now realise I had been having symptoms of heart failure for more than a month. I constantly felt worn out, something she attributed to the wear and tear of caring for my grandchildren.

I thought maybe I was overdoing it because the grandchildren had me running around so much.

Doctors told me the most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease. But they said my heart failure was a consequence of damage caused by the chemotherapy I had for breast cancer treatment nine years earlier.

I had heard about the risks of heart attack and stroke, but congestive heart failure was a new term for me. I learned what I could about my condition.

Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently enough to meet the body’s needs. The condition can result from other conditions that put added stress on the heart muscle, such as an illness that affects the heart, or damage from sustained conditions such as high blood pressure.

I worked to find a doctor I felt could provide the best care.

The first doctor said I would need a heart transplant to survive. A second doctor told me I had six months to live.

I refused to accept such a grim assessment and sought a third opinion, this time from a cardiologist who suggested additional testing and worked to manage my condition with medication.

Finding a doctor willing to work with me was key. With the first doctors, I just felt like a number. But when I found this one, I finally felt like I could make it.

I can’t change the fact I have congestive heart failure, but I believe accepting my condition was important in managing my condition.

The damage was done, you have to accept it so you can move forward. I worked to focus on what I could control, rather than focus on things I couldn’t change.

I had to get educated and understand why this happened, but after that, it’s a matter of what can I do to make my heart stronger?

I made changes to my diet to avoid red meat and significantly reduce my sodium intake. I’m also in regular contact with my doctor to make sure my heart isn’t getting significantly weaker.

I realised I had to do my best to keep healthy and do what I could to beat this.

I try to keep active, though I no longer have the energy to do the 45-minute walk to the park I used to do several times a week.

I still go up and down the stairs and do things around the house. I try to keep moving, but have to be careful not to wear myself out.

I now have a housekeeper come once a week and gets help from my family with other daily chores that require more exertion. My husband does the dishes and my kids help with other chores when they visit.

My family has been very supportive. My kids are always making sure I’m not getting sick or doing too much.

I’m also careful to keep doing what I can for myself. If I just stayed home in bed and let people baby me all the time, I would have been a basket case.

I’m alive and I got to see my kids grow and see my grandchildren.

That’s all that matters.

– Sara, 65

“I was in shock! I ate right and exercised.”

Heart Healthcare Story

At age 39, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was near death with a heart function of less than 5 percent. I had been extremely fatigued and short of breath for many months and had been going to see my family physician regularly with these complaints.

The day of my diagnosis, I was scheduled for a pulmonary function test. I decided to skip that test and go straight to the emergency room instead. I was told I would need a transplant to survive.

I was in shock! I ate right and exercised. I was in the best shape of my life physically. I had done everything right. I did manage to go home without a transplant, and I am doing extremely well today with a heart function of 48 percent, which is just 2 percent below normal.

I was extremely weak after my release, Steve would make sure I walked every day. At first, I couldn’t go very far at all and was exhausted. But each day he would have me walk just a little bit further until I was doing five kilometres at a time!

Steve and I had just started dating seven months prior to my diagnosis. I saw a man of amazing strength and love when I was going through the worst days of my life. Having his support and knowing I needed to be there for my daughter were the greatest motivators.

I have had my ups and downs over the years, though, and there have been a couple of times doctors were preparing me for the heart transplant list. I am happy to say I am an 11-year survivor and have not had a transplant!

For me, it means learning all you can about heart disease and how to prevent it and then acting upon that knowledge. I learned the signs and symptoms of heart disease and also was shocked to find that heart disease was the number one killer of women!

I always tell anyone, you have to be your own advocate. Don’t just brush off symptoms as nothing. Get answers!

It’s important to take care of ourselves through diet and exercise. These are the things we do have control over. For congestive heart failure patients, these are extremely important changes to make in order to increase chances of survival.

I enjoy helping anyone who needs to make changes in their diet, especially with the sodium intake, because I remember how hard it was for me when I was first diagnosed. It was extremely hard to find anything that actually fit into my new diet restrictions, and it was an education.

Once I learned what I needed to do and changed my entire way of cooking, I wanted to be sure to pass this information on to anyone else going through the same thing so they didn’t have to struggle with knowing what to do.

Anyone who knows me will also say I’m a strong advocate of being active and getting your family involved in activities that will benefit their heart health.

We need to teach our kids these things at an early age so they continue it their entire lives.

– Kimberly, 50

“I’m still trying to find my new normal.”

Heart Healthcare Story,

I thought my constant exhaustion was simply a byproduct of juggling a stressful job, four busy kids and getting older.

But while listening to my heart during an examination, my doctor heard something that didn’t sound right and referred me to a cardiologist.

A month later, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and an enlarged heart. My heart was working at 25 percent of its capacity.

Even as the doctors were telling me, I was in disbelief. I enjoyed good health, stayed active and felt like I could take on anything. The heart failure diagnosis hit hard.

There was a big learning curve to start with. As I was unfamiliar with heart failure, I worked with my medical team to learn more about the condition and how my life would change.

Doctors told me damage sustained from earlier cancer treatment, along with a strong family history of heart disease and stroke, were likely to blame. I had relatives from both sides of my family who had died from a heart attack or stroke, but I hadn’t realised it also meant I had an increased risk.

When my grandmother died from a heart attack, I was only eight, so I thought it was because she was old. Actually, she was only 51.

I experienced a roller coaster of emotions, thinking back to everything I’d experienced with cancer.

You start feeling sorry for yourself, but I had to stop and remember, I’ve been through this before and made it through.

The diagnosis was also difficult for my kids. The younger ones were too little to remember much when I had cancer, but for the older ones, this has been devastating because they remember how hard it was.

When I had cancer, I had help from my family. This time around, I’m now acting as caregiver for my mother, who suffers from dementia.

There’s no cure for heart failure and managing the condition has been difficult as doctors try to find the right combination of medications to stabilise my condition.

I’m still trying to find my new normal. I’ve changed my diet and try to get exercise when I have the energy for it, even if it’s just walking around the house. Just having a conversation can leave me out-of-breath.

Some days, basic tasks like making dinner proves too difficult. We’ve been through this so the kids understand they have to step up and help. I personally know the struggle from a mental, emotional, physical and financial standpoint.

The importance of knowledge about resources, education, support and care is so important and vital in your road to recovery.

– Aimee, 41