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What You (and Your Doctor) Don't Know Can Kill You

By Candace Hoffman
WebMD Health News

June 8, 2000 -- Nancy Loving, 53, never thought she'd be a national spokesperson for anything, let alone become a "poster child for heart disease." But after her heart attack at age 48, she found herself among a virtually unrecognized group of more than 440,000 American women who suffer heart attacks each year. And she decided it was time to speak out.

More women get heart disease than all forms of cancer combined, yet most women consider it only a remote health risk. A recent national poll showed that, although they are more likely to die from heart disease than any other disease, 61% of women consider cancer their greatest health threat and only 7% see heart disease as a major killer. Further, many doctors have not been trained to look for heart disease in women, and may fail to warn them of the dangers.

Loving, a public relations professional based in Washington, experienced this firsthand. Despite the fact that she smoked, was overweight, and had a family history of heart disease, she never thought she was a candidate for the disease. Nor did her doctors ever talk to her about it.

But then she awoke one night with upper back pain, a cold, clammy feeling, and lightheadedness. Thinking she had the flu, she had her daughter drive her to the hospital. On the way, she realized "something was very wrong."

She was lucky: an alert doctor recognized her symptoms and she was treated before any heart muscle damage occurred. But the experience left her angry and scared. When she asked her doctor if there were any support groups for women like her, she was told there were none. So she formed Womenheart, an organization devoted to educating women about their risks and providing a support network.

Her two co-founders, Jackie Markham and Judy Mingram, each have their own treatment horror stories.

When Markham experienced symptoms, was told she had the flu and to go home and rest, according to Loving. The following day, she had a major attack -- which was first diagnosed as shingles, an inflammation of nerves caused by the chicken pox virus. Fortunately, Loving says, a young woman doctor looked at Markham's chart and realized she was having a heart attack. But by that time, 10% of her heart muscle had died.

Mingham's heart attack was diagnosed as a cocaine overdose. She was only 40 years old, and ambulance drivers refused to transport her. She ended up with an emergency bypass operation.

Addressing the annual Congress on Women's Health and Gender-Based Medicine in Hilton Head, S.C., earlier this month, Elsa-Grace V. Giardina, MD, called cardiovascular disease an equal-opportunity killer. She says that while about the same number of men and women get heart disease and die from it, death from the disease has risen sharply in women since 1979, even as it has dropped in men.

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