“I always thought that someday, it would be breast cancer that would take my life,” Monique* admits. “But now I know that my heart has only so much time left.”
With a long family history of heart disease, stroke, and other heart issues, Monique knew her own risk for heart and circulatory problems was high. So high that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to forgo one of the recommended chemotherapy agents—Adriamycin—due to the damage it can cause to the heart.
Despite this decision, 3 years into her survivorship, Monique suffered her first stroke. “It felt like the worst flu ever,” she recounts.
“I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and my right hand couldn’t flush the toilet. In bed, it felt like there was a dead weight on my chest (my right arm), so I tried to get up to look in the mirror to see what was happening, but I fell.” Monique’s husband rushed her to the hospital, but her doctors couldn’t find the blood clot that caused the stroke on the MRI images, and the neurologist couldn’t explain why the stroke occured.
Two months later, while raking leaves, “I felt dizzy. I waited until the next day before going to the MinuteClinic,” Monique remembers. “They ruled out an ear infection, so I contacted my oncologist who ordered an MRI and confirmed that it was a stroke!” she says incredulously. “He was concerned it may have been a brain metastasis hidden by swelling during the first stroke!”
Her cardiologist told her that the chemotherapy she received for breast cancer had changed her blood chemistry, causing her blood to thicken, especially when she was dehydrated. Blood thinning medication and proper hydration allowed Monique to continue being active. “I push myself and have never had to quit a job that I started,” she explains.
Monique and her husband tackled finishing their basement in January, 2020. Taking a well-deserved break during the taping and seaming, “I made a Hawaiian cocktail, as we had plans to visit there in 1 month,” laughs Monique. “I couldn’t even finish it because my stomach was terribly upset and I had acid reflux. Then came incredible weakness and exhaustion.”
Her primary care physician took her pulse—it was 150 beats per minute—performed an immediate EKG, and then looked her in the eyes and said gravely, “When you leave here, you need to go directly to the ER, where they may have to restart your heart.”
Monique was flabbergasted by the diagnosis of “AFib” (Atrial fibrillation: an irregular and rapid heart rate caused by chaotic and irregular beating of the upper heart atria) and a weak heart. Her voice a bit shaky, Monique shares her fears at this moment: “What if my heart doesn’t restart? What if I have a heart attack?” Left unspoken, but clear from the emotion in her voice, “What if I die?”
Scared and sobbing, ER staff put an oxygen mask on Monique while she prayed to her deceased parents. When they restarted her heart to get it back to its normal rhythm, Monique remembers, “it felt weird, like my soul separated from my body.”
Like with her previous health problems, Monique sought the support of people who had been through the same situation, finding comfort by talking to them, which eased the scariness of her own AFib diagnosis.
Unfortunately, the events of 2020 increased Monique’s stress and anxiety, and she experienced a rapid heart rate again in October. Awaiting a much-needed ablation surgery, her health spiraled downward until she couldn’t walk 10 feet without panting for air. “They restarted my heart in the ER again, but the lung x-ray showed a developing mass. Well,” remarks Monique seriously, “as a breast cancer survivor, I thought it was a lung metastasis.”
Again, her oncologist was able to listen to all of her symptoms and arrive at a diagnosis: Congestive Heart Failure. He confirmed the mass in her lungs was not cancer or COVID and would continue to monitor it. An AFib ablation surgery provided immediate relief.
However much this has helped, the COVID pandemic with its propensity to cause short and long-term heart and lung damage, has Monique very paranoid. “I know if I get sick with it, I will be in trouble and in the hospital.”
Besides reducing her COVID exposure by limiting going out in public, Monique is focused on her heart health. “I have changed my diet—no caffeine, alcohol, salt—and I exercise every day. This was a huge wake up call,” Monique acknowledges. “You know, I always thought that someday, it would be breast cancer that would take my life. But now I know that my heart has only so much time left.”
With this in mind, Monique and her husband are reprioritizing their lives, making plans to travel as soon as the pandemic allows, and Monique is stepping back from leadership activities and asking for help when she needs it.
Every person interviewed for a Firefly Sisterhood blog is asked a final question. Any advice for our readers? Without a moment’s hesitation, Monique responds, “Get enough good sleep every night. Sleep is so important to proper functioning of so many parts of our bodies, especially our hearts and brains. I now know that years of sleep disturbances accelerated my heart issues.” She recommends seeing a sleep specialist if you are concerned about your sleep (or lack thereof).
A very special thank you to Monique for sharing her story and her final words of wisdom. Heart disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue
Stroke Symptoms in Women:
- Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of your face or in one arm or leg
- Loss of vision, strength, coordination, sensation, or speech
- Sudden dim vision, especially in one eye
- Sudden loss of balance, sometimes along with vomiting, nausea, fever, hiccups, or trouble swallowing
- Sudden and severe headache with no other cause, followed quickly by passing out
- Dizziness or sudden falls
Written by Amy Tix, Firefly Staffer and breast cancer survivor, whose own chemotherapy included Adriamycin, and who watches her won heart health because of this.