You walk into your doctor’s office for what you think is either a routine checkup or to address that nagging pain in your neck, jaw or back. Then it happens. “You have heart disease.” The words you never, not in a million years, thought your doctor would utter.
You’re not alone. You’ve just joined the ranks of more than 43 million American women who have heard the same diagnosis. Pause for a second and think about how massive that number is.
Star Jones and other heart disease survivors like her call this group of women members of the ‘zipper club’ – a club, she says, women are proud of because it symbolizes the strength, unity and determination to come together and help one another fight this disease. And win.
What does your diagnosis mean?
No matter what you call it – heart disease, cardiovascular disease, or coronary heart disease – it means there is a plaque buildup in the walls of your arteries. As the plaque builds, your arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and creating a risk for heart attack or stroke. Women are also diagnosed with heart disease when an irregular heartbeat or heart valve problems are present.
What to do after your diagnosis
1. Drop the guilt. Women pride themselves on being able to do it all. But sometimes, you need to lean on others; and when you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, that’s the time to do it. “Women, in particular, need to be reminded to take care of our bodies and pay attention when something is not right,” says Kimberly Montgomery.
2. Realize that it’s okay to feel vulnerable. Reach out to other women who share your diagnosis and start to build a personal support team. Know when you need to let go of some control and let others take care of you. It may be a struggle at first, as it was for survivor and nurse, Eva Gomez. Eva hated feeling that she wasn’t in control as she placed her life in the hands of her fellow medical staff. But once she understood that fear and feeling helpless is normal, she welcomed the support of family and friends. And it was that support that helped her realize that she had a second chance at life.
3. Join support groups. There’s no reason to cope with heart disease on your own. And accept the fact that it may be difficult at times, like it was for Rachel D’Souza-Siebert. It wasn’t until after she started meeting other survivors and joining a national support group that she was able to cope.
4. Believe in yourself. Yes, the diagnosis is going to create feelings of depression, anger and fear. But it’s important to process those feelings and then get past them. After several health and personal trials, Toni, decided “heart disease does not have to take your life.” Because she believed in herself and in her ability to beat this disease, she was able to return her life back to normal. “Regardless of the circumstances, or any obstacles, you can live with heart disease, and live beyond it,” says Toni.
5. Make a pledge to Go Red and spread the word about heart health. As survivors, like Star Jones, have noted, when awareness in women increases they are in a better position to spot symptoms and go to their doctors before it’s too late. And given the high fatality rate, survivors like Amy Heinl feel especially lucky to share their experience with others. “I tell my story because I am actually alive to tell it,” says Amy. “I want to show other women that heart disease can happen to anyone, but you can survive it. I’m proof of that.”