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Heart disease comes as a surprise to cancer survivor

I often wondered how in the world someone who felt as good as I did and thought myself so healthy could have all these problems. Surely someone was mistaken. Don't I wish.

A little over a year ago, I started not feeling well, developed a bad cough and had an unusual pain in my neck, but thought it was all due to cold and allergies - it was that time of the year. It was also time for a physical, so the process was started.

All the data came back very good - the usual measurements for health were good, labs were good, EKG was good, no cholesterol problems. I still have the lab results where my doctor added a little note about how great things were looking. But things weren't getting any better with the cough and neck pain.

About a month later, I woke up and could not breathe. That was a terrifying experience. I was rushed to the local ER where numerous tests were done, which came back with a dire verdict - congestive heart failure, lung problems and a bunch of other bad things.

Several tests later, I learned that the problem was my heart which led to two coronary bypasses and a stent. After the surgery, the doctors told me that I had had a heart attack - to this day I could not tell you when that happened - leaving a severely damaged heart pump, plus two leaky valves.

About 14 years ago, I had breast cancer in the left breast and fought the cancer aggressively with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. I've had no problems since, and thought that I had truly dodged the bullet. But it was not to be.

I learned that my heart had sustained considerable damage from the chemo and radiation. The radiation did damage to the bones, making healing difficult. It was doubtful that I would heal from open-heart surgery. Fortunately, my doctor felt that he could do the bypass by going through the ribs endoscopically. I am so grateful that he succeeded.

On Oct. 10, 2007, I read an article in the Gwinnett Daily Post that stated that 2.3 million women who had been saved from breast cancer were now suffering heart problems caused by her treatments. I was even more surprised to learn that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and even kills more than the next seven diseases combined.

Healing has been a real challenge. Over a year later, I am still trying to recover my strength. I still need to have a valve surgery. The greatest help to me has been my cardiac rehabilitation program, but, sadly, only about 18 percent of cardiac patients take advantage of a rehab program. The number is even lower for women.

I want to run up to women and men and say, please don't smoke, lose some weight, exercise, eat right, please take care of yourself. You have no idea how difficult it is to try to live with a damaged heart. Recovering from cancer was simple compared to this. I am very thankful - to be alive, to be able to breathe, to be able to walk without gasping for breath, to be able to hope and dream and look forward to a good tomorrow. I wish you the best of health and a good, strong and happy heart.

Barbara King is executive vice president of Primerica Financial Services. She is a 2008 Gwinnett Heart Walk honoree. This year's Gwinnett Heart Walk will take place on Sept. 20 at the Duluth Town Green.