As a breast cancer survivor, I’ve worn a lot of pink to raise awareness of the disease over recent years. But my mom had heart surgery last week, and it opened my eyes to another health threat facing women. It turns out we should be talking a lot more often about heart disease.
My mom got a cold over the holidays. She was at my son’s holiday party and he was sick. So, she got sick. It’s a familiar story to those of us taking care of little ones. But my mom’s cold got worse. She was hospitalized with pneumonia. They ran some blood tests. The doctors came back saying, “You’ve got heart disease.” They discovered it by chance. A few weeks later, my mom had to have heart surgery. She’s recovering as I type this.
But my mom was lucky. Women often have no idea they have heart disease. Women of color, like my mom and I, are even less likely to realize we have it. And yet, heart disease is more deadly to women than all forms of cancer combined.
One in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year. Heart disease claims the lives of one in three. A woman dies every minute of heart disease in America. Yet the stereotypes about heart disease tend to suggest it is something that only affects men. Think back to the last time you saw a heart disease-related commercial in a glossy magazine. It featured a white man in his 60s, right? It’s not a coincidence. After all, older men still run the country, when you look at the numbers in Congress.
Wearing red is important and creates visibility for a huge problem. But we also need to invest in public health and education, and much of this work starts at the policy level. As long as men make up a majority of our elected officials, policies that center women and gender-nonconforming people will remain secondary. We need more of us in political office, and on boards and commissions.
I’ve served on the Concord/Pleasant Hill Healthcare Community Board since 2017. The organization provides grants to improve the health of the Concord and Pleasant Hill communities. It is so important to have women’s voices in these kinds of supervisory roles. That’s because health care remains an intergenerational issue of significance for women in America. If our voices aren’t at the table, decisions get made without including us. The health care system needs fixing across the country, and it’s an issue that motivates women to vote, research shows. Access to health care impacts racial, economic and social justice for all Americans. Yet many people still struggle to access the care they need. There’s more inequality in America than ever and the stakes are generational. According to the American Heart Association, 59 percent of Black women over 20 have cardiovascular disease.
I’ve also found that in immigrant communities like mine, there is a tendency to believe we deserve to suffer. My mom would definitely attest to that from her sick bed. She downlplays her symptoms and is reluctant to accept my help taking care of her. It turns out, 64 percent of women who die a quick death of heart disease had no previous symptoms. And when women do have symptoms of heart disease they are often misinterpreted as something else, such as a sign of anxiety or stress. Also, while men are more likely than women to experience chest pain as a symptom of heart disease, more common symptoms in women are shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain. The American Heart Association recommends Gen Z (anyone born between 1981 and 1996) start getting their cholesterol checked now. It’s important to check your blood pressure often too.
I wish I knew all this a month ago, but it took a big bump in the road to bring me up to speed. I’m sharing my story and my mom’s, along with the statistics, so that you can avoid a rude awakening like we had. I’m also hopeful we can make the cultural and policy-related changes needed so that all women and gender-nonconforming people can get the health care we deserve.
Sara Guillermo is the Chief Executive of IGNITE, the nation’s leading organization harnessing political ambition, community building and leadership skills among young women and girls.