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Heart Disease Health Center

Silent Risk: Women and Heart Disease

Heart disease kills half a million American women each year. So why are women more afraid of breast cancer?
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Mental Health and the Heart continued...

Kathy Kastan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following heart bypass surgery. (This condition is a form of anxiety brought on by a traumatic or life-threatening event.)

In spite of being a psychotherapist herself, the 44-year-old wife and mother didn't recognize the signs of the condition until the second year after her surgery. "The first year I was in shock," she says. "When you go through trauma like that, you stay numb." She relates the trauma to the surgery itself, pain and humiliation caused by a nurse, and continued poor health after the surgery. "I worked through it, but these experiences change your life."

Missing the Diagnosis

Many women with heart disease say they were misdiagnosed in the early stages. In the survey, only 35% of the women and 68% of their doctors associated their symptoms with heart problems. Yet most of the women surveyed had typical cardiac symptoms, such as chest pain and arm pain or pressure, or shortness of breath. Others reported dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and back pain, which are less common symptoms.

Kastan was a 41-year-old non-smoker and a trim athlete when she began experiencing shortness of breath. She attributed it to asthma, which can be brought on by exercise. But it kept getting worse. On one bike ride, the symptoms became severe. Kastan's husband, a physician, said he doubted she had heart disease, nevertheless suggested she see a cardiologist. The cardiologist proclaimed her healthy. The very next week she collapsed in the mountains. "This time I had classic Hollywood heart attack symptoms with chest pain radiating up into my jaw and down my arm, shortness of breath, pasty pale skin and nausea," she says.

She immediately went to a second cardiologist. "He said to go home and exercise and we'll see what happens. The minute I started running I collapsed again." She finally had the cardiologist put her on the treadmill and raise the level of exertion. "Then he was the one who turned pasty pale. He said I had a blockage" in the arteries. The doctor quickly confirmed his suspicion by inserting a catheter to look into her arteries.

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