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Un-Break Her Heart

Toni Braxton Faces Her Heart Disease With Courage

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Toni Braxton never imagined that the lyrics to her most famous song wouldcome true -- or that a serious medical condition would put her name on anotherset of charts.

Three years ago this September, while performing the title role ofAida on Broadway, Grammy award-winner Toni Braxton experienced a trulylife-transforming event. "I was changing costumes, about to do my bignumber before intermission, and I'm feeling really lightheaded," sherecalls. "I didn't know what was wrong with me."

The next thing she remembers is waking up and being told she had passedout.

Braxton rose to fame as one of R&B's most successful singers during themid-'90s. Her string of hits -- "Breathe Again," "Another Sad LoveSong," "You Mean the World to Me," and the chart-topping"Un-Break My Heart"- inspired the sale of several million copies of hertwo albums. Her star continued to rise in the years following. She recorded herthird album, made a happy marriage with music producer KeriLewis, and garnered new accolades for her work on Broadway.

But suddenly Braxton found herself being rushed to the hospital. There,doctors told her she had pericarditis, a serious heart condition.

Often caused by a virus, pericarditis is an inflammation of the tissue thatsurrounds the heart. It can cause fluid to accumulate, which constricts theheart and reduces its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. Braxton'sdoctors described her case as "probably middle stage," which refers tothe degree to which the heart's pumping ability is compromised.

Braxton's medical diagnosis petrified her. After taking medication for about a year,she is now fully recovered. But what terrifies her even more today is therealization that she had unwittingly ignored many of the symptoms. "Imissed all the signals," she tells WebMD.

Symptoms of pericarditis include sharp pain in the center or left side ofthe chest, increased heart rate, mild fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath.Untreated pericarditis can lead to potentially life-threatening complications,so early detection and treatment are imperative.

At the time of her episode, Braxton had given birth to her second son,Diezel, only five-and-a-half months earlier. She attributed her extreme fatigueto the new baby, despite the fact that she hadn't experienced the same level ofexhaustion with her first child, Denim. And even though she was "crazytired," she pushed on and immersed herself in Aida rehearsals.

A month before the incident, she also started having tightness and pain inthe left side of her chest, but she again dismissed those sensations, this timeattributing them to childhood asthma. And, being in her 30s, Braxton neverthought a heart ailment could strike someone so young.

"When I was first told I had pericarditis, I said 'peri - what?' I hadno idea what it was. I thought it was an older person's disease," shesays.

Today, Braxton knows better. And as a spokesperson for the American HeartAssociation's "Red Dress" campaign, she's on a mission to educate womenabout their health -- especially women who think, like she once did, that itcan't happen to them. She now advises women to become more proactive andinvolved in their health care. "Know what [medication] you're taking andwhy," she says. "Know what you're treating."

"I'm the poster child for women and people all over the world," saysBraxton. "If it happened to me, it can happen to you. We can prevent it, wecan fix it! Sometimes people get scared. They'll say, 'I don't want to go tothe doctor, they might find something.' It's OK because you can get it takencare of. That's more important."

When it comes to health, the biggest mistake women make is never puttingthemselves first, she says.

"A lot of times, we don't have the time, but you've got to squeezeyourself in there some way. Women are so used to taking care of the household,the kids, and everything else, they always put themselves last."

Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist who heads women's cardiac care at LenoxHill Hospital in New York, agrees that women often brush symptoms aside. Asthey juggle family and job obligations, women fear that everything around themmight collapse if they had to go to the hospital with a serious illness. Withtime in such short supply, it's important, Goldberg says, to develop a supportnetwork of friends and family members who can watch your child when you have adoctor's appointment, ideally with a physician who can accommodate you duringearly morning and evening hours.

An additional barrier is that women do not perceive heartdisease as a real problem. According to the American Heart Association,less than 20% of women consider heart disease a threat, despite the fact thatit's the No. 1 killer of women, taking more women's lives than all forms ofcancer, including breast cancer.

"Instead of wasting your time worrying about symptoms, just get itchecked out," says Goldberg, who has had many patients confess to her,after a medical procedure, that they hadn't been feeling well for a long time."Women are very in touch with their bodies, and they know when something isnot right."

Mona Lisa Schulz, MD, a neuropsychiatrist and the author of AwakeningIntuition and the newly published The New Feminine Brain, alsobelieves that women inherently know when something is amiss and should be morewilling to act on it.

"It's important that women always attend to the first symptoms in theirbodies," she says. "These symptoms are part of the feminine brain'sintuition that lets you know something is out of balance in your life. Thesense of warning and foreboding increases and escalates until you actually getan illness. Your body has to get your attention because every symptom is partof the body's way of saying that something needs to be attended to."

But Schulz also wants to make sure that women see a physician to check outthe symptoms. "You always want to balance your right-brain intuition withleft-brain fact," she says, suggesting that women develop and trust theirintuitive awareness by discussing these subjects with friends, counselors, orspiritual advisors or going to doctors who specialize in emotional issues.

For Braxton, her biggest hit, "Un-Break My Heart," has taken onspecial meaning. "I always hear older people saying, 'When you sing songs,they actually become your life,'" she says. After her bout withpericarditis and healing her own heart, she's helping other women prevent thebreakage in the first place. For Braxton, it's now all about harmony. The proofis her newest album, titled Libra -- her astrological sign, symbolizedby the scales of balance.

But Braxton emphasizes that paying attention should apply not only to heartdisease but to any illness. She's especially gratified when fans follow up withher. "Often they'll say, 'I went to the doctor and got myself checkedout,'" she says. "It makes me feel good."