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Shock figures reveal women's heart disease risks

By Ann W Schmidt

Published 13/09/2016

Monica McCann had heart disease despite leading a healthy lifestyle
Monica McCann had heart disease despite leading a healthy lifestyle

A woman who suffered heart disease despite leading a healthy lifestyle has urged anyone with concerns to seek help before it's too late.

Monica McCann (53), from south Belfast, was speaking as shocking new figures revealed that one in four deaths among women were from heart and circulatory disease each year in Northern Ireland.

That adds up to five women every day - meaning twice as many women die of heart disease than breast cancer. The British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland (BHF NI) said that women are more likely to ignore or dismiss symptoms of heart disease, even though they are just as likely as men to have it.

Jayne Murray, the head of BHF NI, said that women might not seek help for a number of reasons. She said: "This might be because women are less likely to recognise the symptoms, they're reluctant to cause a fuss, or they don't want to be embarrassed if it turns out that their situation isn't serious."

But this could mean those women might not survive.

"Heart disease kills as many women as men," Ms Murray said.

She said the stereotype for a person with heart disease is a middle-aged man with diabetes and who smokes. In reality, that's not the case.

"We need to work harder to shift the perception that heart disease only affects a certain type of person. Heart disease affects the wider spectrum of the population - including women," Ms Murray said.

Monica, too, had that perception. She is a healthy woman who exercises and eats well. She doesn't drink and she doesn't smoke.

She kept herself busy with her job as an assistant director of a local charity and her three teenage sons, one of whom has a learning disability.

"I'm a really active person. I'm quite energetic," she said.

But last year she started having chest pains. When they started, two of her brothers were in hospital, one for a heart attack and one for a stroke.

"I can remember one day rushing from one hospital to the other when I felt a pain in my chest but thought nothing of it. Over the next few months it kept happening," she said.

She thought maybe the stress was getting to her or that she was drinking too much coffee. She didn't see a doctor for six months and thought she was just getting out of shape.

"I was exhausted all the time," she said. "I sort of worked around it, but it was getting worse."

Ms McCann eventually went to her GP for a different reason, but mentioned that she was having chest pains.

Her doctor recommended that she get some tests done just in case.

When she went in for the tests, they found she had severe narrowing in an artery.

"They told me there and then they were going to have to put stents in. I just felt like, 'This can't be happening to me'. I had two stents fitted and the doctor told me straight that I probably wouldn't have survived a heart attack."

Now that she's recovering she realises she has to learn to pay attention to how she's feeling instead of pushing herself to keep going.

She didn't realise then that she was in so much danger.

"I thought because I was doing everything right, it wouldn't happen to me," she said.

"I've just been very grateful and I'm just very lucky I'm here."

Ms Murray said that to clear up misconceptions, stories like Ms McCann's are vital. "As we try to raise awareness, people sharing their stories is really, really important," Ms Murray said.

She added that more has to be done for women with heart disease in research and creating awareness.

She mentioned that cancer is given much needed attention, but that same amount of attention should be given to heart disease.

"There's a lot of misconceptions," she said.

"Heart disease kills twice as many women as breast cancer."

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