Of all the issues that I deal with from my treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma over thirty years ago, my heart has consumed the majority of the focus. Obviously, the heart beating is the most important factor in our life. My first heart surgery was an emergency double bypass for what is nicknamed a “widow maker” blockage (the name speaks for itself) of the main artery to the heart. Then, eleven years later, a second heart surgery to place a stent in another major artery of the heart.
It is the third heart surgery, just over four months ago now, that psychologically had managed to jar my thinking. The diagnosis was “congestive heart failure.” The widow maker had it occurred would have been an instant event, and without immediate intervention, as my original cardiologist put it, “was not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when'” I was going to die. But in the years that have passed since then, I had never seen the words “congestive heart failure.”
Being as involved in cancer and survivorship support, I have heard of CHF, many times. And really none with any positive outcomes. From those I knew, if you were diagnosed with CHF, there was really only one eventual possibility to survive it, and that would be a heart transplant. Heart transplants are not an easy thing to get done as it is. But it is literally unheard of in my world of Hodgkin’s survivors. Because of the chronic, progressive, and permanent issues, we are typically not candidates for heart transplants. The odds of survivorship are insurmountable. We may be getting closer to that option, as last year, a fellow survivor fought hard enough, and advocated enough to finally find a doctor willing to perform the transplant. Alas, there was a complication pre-surgery, which then disqualified her for the transplant. She died soon after.
It is easy to get lost in the words “heart failure.” Simply put, it means that the heart is not beating as it should. It is not however, always as bad as it seems. There are certain levels of heart failure. For the purposes of today, and this post, I am referring to the heart valves. There are four: aortic, mitral, tricuspid, and pulmonary.
What leads to heart valve disease can vary. You can be born with valve defects. Infections are also a cause of heart valve disease. Heart attacks and other cardiac events can cause damage to the valves. Other factors can include diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, all contribute to heart valve disease. And then there are causes, created by curing other illnesses. Such is the case of treating cancer. Exposure to chemotherapy and radiation therapies can cause progressive and cumulative damage to the heart valves. I can speak to this personally.
Unless you are under a cardiologist’s care, it is difficult to recognize when you are dealing with heart valve issues. But the symptoms are there. The trick is to recognize them. Some symptoms can be quite subtle and almost unrecognizable, such as lightheadedness, more tired than usual, or even feeling “off”. A little more attention-getting could be an irregular heartbeat you feel, or a flutter, perhaps even chest pains. And the most noticeable, swollen ankles and SOB, shortness of breath. Though I had been aware of my valve issues for more than a decade, my health history required a lengthy “wait and watch”, to determine the right time to repair the affected valves, as my breathing issue got worse, I could tell the time was getting close. Something needed to be done.
There are various means to fix bad heart valves from open heart surgery to methods using trans catheter means (through the leg), much less invasive. And that is the experience that I now have.
What you are looking at is a replica of my new aortic valve. And it is amazing to know, it is close to its actual size. This is what is known as a bio valve (artificial). The other option is a mechanical valve which results in a much more monitored after care and precautions.
Whichever valve is used, the result following the procedure, provided your symptoms were severe enough, is immediate relief. After more than a decade of feeling this way, four months later, my heart is still working great, well, better than it was. I still have other issues with the heart that have to be addressed, and my other non-cardiac issues, but for now, I am enjoying every step I can take without collapsing from the lack of proper blood flow. And you do feel the difference.
So today, is Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day. You might just be surprised who is celebrating today. Celebrate with them. You and they have that chance.