2024 Go Red for Women Class of Survivors: Nazneen Saleem

The following is Naz's story and not an endorsement or diagnosis. Stories have been edited down for time.

Nazneen “Naz” Saleem, 52, survived cancer and multiple heart attacks. She uses her experience to inspire women — especially other moms — to advocate for their health.

As a successful businesswoman, Nazneen “Naz” Saleem knows how to tackle professional challenges. Her work ethic and a strong support system have helped her overcome personal challenges, too. Now as a survivor of cancer, multiple heart attacks and many open-heart surgeries, she uses her experience to help other women.

At 25, Naz was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was treated successfully with chemotherapy and radiation. When she became pregnant five years later, she was excited to become a mom. But the morning after giving birth, her heart started racing. She told the nurses only to have her symptoms dismissed as new mom anxiety.

“I’m not an anxious person, so I knew something was wrong,” said Naz, of Oak Brook, Illinois. “I felt an impending sense of doom.”

After continuing to advocate for herself, doctors found that Naz’s aortic valve had a leak, and she was treated as an outpatient. At home, her condition worsened, and she went back to the hospital a week later. Tests showed that she needed open-heart surgery because the valve still was not working. The radiation that saved her life from cancer damaged her heart. Plus, other pregnancy complications may have strained her aortic valve.

The stress of the impending surgery was a lot for a new mother who just wanted to be with her baby. Discussing end-of-life plans with her husband took an emotional toll.

“My mom ingrained in me from a very young age to be strong and face a challenge head on,” she said. “Use your fear and channel it to focus on what matters, and what mattered to me was that I would be there for that 1-week-old.”

Fortunately, the open-heart surgery was a success. After spending six weeks recovering, Naz went on to pursue her professional goal of being a CEO one day.

So, she returned to work full time and went on to get a master’s degree in business administration. While focusing on her career, she lived a healthy lifestyle, exercised and ate well — except for “the occasional chocolate here and there,” she jokes.

One thing she struggled with, however, was reducing stress. As she was excelling professionally, her heart problems lingered. In 2015, she had a second open-heart surgery, and due to complications, immediately needed a double bypass.

Having undergone two open heart surgeries Naz felt at crossroads on whether to pursue her career aspirations. She spoke with her doctor who provided some life-changing advice about pursuing her goals.

“My doctor told me to go, live and thrive,” Naz said. “He said, ‘If you don’t pursue your goals, we are all wasting our time.’”

Then, in 2018, scar tissue narrowed her bypasses, and she needed stents to improve blood flow. While traveling that winter, she felt very sick in an airport. She went to a hospital where her heart was stabilized. Following that she had another bypass surgery.

“It was that same sense of doom that I had felt before,” she said. “For me, that symptom I recognized was tied to my heart disease. To have that mind-body connection where the anxiety would trip and signal something was wrong was really fascinating. I had to learn that this anxiety is truly my body trying to tell me there’s something wrong with my heart.”

Naz was put on a heart transplant list because of her history of medical complications. But she was determined to survive. So after her third open-heart surgery, she said she was a “model patient” who was consistent with her medical care. She also kept a healthy lifestyle by reducing stress, prioritizing sleep, exercising and eating well. Her hard work paid off and five years later she was taken off the heart transplant list.

One essential piece of any health journey, she said, is knowing your body.

“Having a baseline is so important for women,” she said. “Understand what your body normally feels like and internalize it. Advocate for yourself if you feel off. Even people who love you with every fiber sometimes can be dismissive because they don’t necessarily understand what’s going on. But you know yourself, and you can make sure to get the care you need.”

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately. In such an emergency, wait for an ambulance rather than driving to the hospital.