The number one killer of women isn't breast cancer. It's heart disease.
"A lot of people still think of it as an old person's disease or a men's disease. That's just not the case," said Iva Smolens, a cardiothoracic surgeon and medical director of Banner Heart Hospital's new Women's Heart Center, which opens in February in Mesa.***
And while breast cancer may have a lot of exposure, heart disease will kill more women than all cancers combined, Smolen said.
In 2004, Carol Peterson was sent by her primary care physician to a gastroenterologist to receive a routine colonoscopy, after having been healthy and active all her seven decades of life.
The gastroenterologist "asked me something a little strange," the Mesa resident said. "He asked me if there were any other medical concerns I had."
She thought and then realized she was having occasional tightness in her chest. The specialist sent her back to her primary care doctor and said after she had her heart checked they would worry about the colonoscopy.
Peterson's doctor immediately ordered a stress test, but through a series of miscommunications between the specialist and the clinic that performed the test, it was nearly six weeks before she took it.
"I failed it, right away," she said. "They had to take me off the treadmill."
And her symptoms had changed.
"I had really weird symptoms," Peterson said. "I had a burning in my chest. And I had a weird feeling in my head, similar to a brain freeze - like I had been hit over the head with a hammer."
These symptoms didn't come at a specific time, Peterson said. It happened while she was sitting and watching TV, walking, riding her bike to the store and playing golf.
"I started leaving my front door unlocked and my cell phone by my bed," she said. Living alone in a gated community following the death of her husband, Peterson felt safe, but she didn't want the fire department to break down her door if something happened in the middle of the night.
Finally, one day while going to have lunch with a life-long friend, Elaine OBanion, Peterson wasn't feeling well.
She asked to be taken home, but OBanion drove her straight to the emergency room instead.
Peterson was admitted to Banner Baywood, transferred to the heart center and learned that three arteries in her heart were 90 percent blocked.
She had a triple bypass surgery a few days later, she said.
Not too long after the surgery, she was shopping and "then came the hammer again."
During a procedure to repair a failed bypass, her heart also failed, Peterson said. It took electric paddles to shock her heart back to life.
Since then, Peterson has made it her mission to bring prevention awareness and education of heart disease to women. "I'm a self-appointed general in a one-person war," Peterson said. "I attacked it before it attacked me."
Since being diagnosed with heart disease, she's learned the risk factors and worked to promote its awareness through a golf tournament, Golf is Where The Heart Is.
Her two tournaments raised about $63,000 to help start the Women's Heart Center at Banner Heart Hospital.
Heart disease "far exceeds the number of cancer deaths combined," Iva Smolens said.
Women also experience slightly different symptoms than men when it comes to heart disease. Like Peterson, women often don't always have traditional signs of heart disease.
"Heart disease doesn't have the same presentation in women," Smolens said. "Women can experience nausea, vomiting, fatigue and other flu-like symptoms."
The main risk factors of heart disease are smoking, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and lack of exercise, Smolens said. Doctors don't always check for all the signs of heart disease.
"You have to take charge of your own body," Peterson suggests. "Tell your doctor, ‘I want you to play attention to my heart health.'"
Many women delay going to the doctor to get symptoms checked or going to the hospital during a heart attack, Smolens said.
"In a survey by the American Heart Association, women were asked, ‘If you knew you were having a heart attack, would you call 911?'" Smolens said. "Nearly half said no."
This might partially be because women have traditionally filled the role of caretaker, Smolens said. But they need to not dismiss their symptoms.
Preventative care is especially important for women all ages, information the new center hopes to promote.
The center will focus on educating young women about their risks, Smolens said. The medical center will host a Dance for a Healthy Heart 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 11 at Tempe Marketplace and the Superstition Springs Mall. Attendees will dance to different kinds of music (including ballroom, rock, jazz, salsa, swing and hip-hop), and health screenings and information about heart disease will be available.
The center will also offer free assessment tools and $25 heart check-ups. It will also focus on connecting patients with a cardiologist that best fits their needs.
For more information about Women's Heart Center, visit www.BannerHealth.com or call (480) 321-4YOU (4968).
***Correction (Dec. 11, 2011, 5:05 p.m.): In the original version of this story, appearing in the Wednesday, Dec. 11 edition of the Tribune and online, The new Women's Heart Center should have been identified as part of Banner Heart Hospital, not Banner Baywood Medical Center.
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