In my family, cancer runs rampant on my father's side, whereas on my mother's side it's diabetes and heart disease.
When an email came in my inbox recently from Richmond cardiologist Dr. Teddi Orenstein about women and heart disease, I knew I wanted to interview her.
Many of my friends, all of whom are in their 50s, talk about cancer with gnawing fear. Every month, it seems, we hear about yet another friend struck by the disease, and we all have a family member who has or is battling cancer. My father died of cancer four years ago and my sister has had it twice.
Darn right, I fear cancer.
Yet, it's heart disease and stroke that kills more Canadian women than all cancers combined. Yes, this isn't a typo. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in this country.
So, armed with my reporter's notepad and a list of questions to ask a doctor about my risk factors for heart disease or stroke (which you can download online at http: thehearttruth.ca/know-your-risk/questions-toask-your-doctor), I met Orenstein at her busy office across from Richmond Hospital.
I liked her immediately. Her smart, nononsense attitude struck a cord with me.
"Overall, the signs of a stroke or heart attack are the same for men and women," said Orenstein. "The severe pain in the chest, shortness of breath, sweaty feeling, abdominal pain and a crescendo of pain are all classic signs, but there are lots of variations.
"What is troubling is that nine out of 10 women have at least one risk factor for heart disease and stroke and they don't even know it." (See below for the risk factors.)
With pen and paper in her hand, Orenstein started asking me for background information such as age, activity level, diabetes history in my family, about my siblings, history of chest pain and so on.
When she asked me if I'd had my cholesterol tested recently, I paused. I couldn't remember.
"You need to know your cholesterol numbers and what they mean to you," she said.
She then asked if I exercise and whether I smoke.
I told Orenstein I exercise every day for at least an hour, I don't smoke and I try to keep my stress level down - although deadlines can keep me up at night. I digress -
"You have to have at least 30 minutes a day (of exercise), but you can break it down to 10-10-10 or 15 and 15 and it still will reduce your risk for heart disease," she said.
Orenstein's bookcase is filled with thankyou cards from patients - a testament to her commitment to preventative heart disease.
She has practiced in Richmond since 1994.
"For women, chest pain may not be the first sign of heart trouble," she said. "Some of my patients experienced unusual tiredness, trouble sleeping, problems breathing, indigestion and anxiety up to a month or so before the heart attack."
Her message, one that she reiterated a few times during our interview is "Know your risk factors."
I asked her how she chose cardiology as a specialty. In 1986, while a resident on orthopedic rotation, her father suffered a heart attack.
"My dad was only 65 when he had his heart attack," she said. "A few months earlier, I had done a rotation in the cardiology department and, suddenly, I decided I wanted to switch (my specialty)."
The reason she is so passionate about informing women about their risks is that her mother died suddenly of a heart attack two years ago at the age of 82. She had no known history of coronary disease. Orenstein remembers walking in the Butchard Gardens with her mom a few months before she died and she seemed short of breath.
"I assumed it was her sedentary lifestyle," she said. "Mom had beat cancer twice, so I wasn't thinking heart disease, I was more worried about cancer.
"A week before she died, she had complained of chest pains - I should have had her screened (for heart disease)."
Orenstein said the sudden and painful loss of her mother has made her even more aware about not missing the warning signs in her elderly female patients.
The good news, though, is that women who know their risk factors and recognize the signs and symptoms, can reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke by 80 per cent.
"If you stop smoking, watch your diet, specifically cut down on your carbohydrates and fried foods, lower your cholesterol and exercise every day you will increase your chances of survival," she added. "If you are a woman over 50, and you are obese and stressed, you have increased your risk exponentially."
Orenstein continued, "Women typically suffer heart problems 10 years after men, however, they are at a higher risk of dying from heart disease than men are."
As we shook hands and said goodbye, Orenstein told me, unless my cholesterol numbers are bad, I'm at a low risk for heart disease.
Phew! One less thing to worry about.
For more information about heart disease, visit the Heart & Stroke Foundation at www. thehearttruth.ca.
? Chest discomfort
? Discomfort in other areas of the upper body
? Shortness of breath
? Trouble speaking (sudden difficulty speaking or understanding or sudden confusion)
? Vision problems
? Dizziness (sudden loss of balance)
Five risk factors
? High blood pressure
? High cholesterol
? Family history
? Don't smoke
? Lower your cholesterol
? Manage your weight
? Keep physically active: at least 30 minutes a day
? Monitor your blood pressure
? Reduce stress
? Manage your diabetes
? Limit alcohol consumption