It’s the season for love, and Bright Pink wants you to show some to your heart. Every woman is at risk for breast and ovarian cancer, but more women will die from heart and cardiovascular problems than either of these cancers.
That’s why we’re “going red” this month: we want to help you take the best care of your heart – which can also help you reduce your breast and ovarian cancer risk, by the way! Our own Dr. Lindner sat down with expert Dr. Rupa Sanghani, a cardiovascular expert and associate director of Rush University’s Rush Heart Center for Women, to get all the details.
Why do women need to focus on heart health?
Cardiovascular disease, or heart disease, is the number one killer of women in this country. It includes a lot of different problems with your heart and the way it pumps blood through your body, such as a heart attack, stroke, or hypertension. Although many people picture heart disease as a problem that mainly affects men and older individuals, I want you to know that one in three women will get this disease and one in four women die from this disease. This is a disease that shouldn’t be underestimated in women.
How does that compare to most women’s breast and ovarian cancer risk?
To compare, the average woman has about a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer and a 1 in 38 chance of dying from breast cancer. Her chances of getting ovarian cancer are even lower, about 1 in 78, with a 1 in 108 chance of dying from ovarian cancer. Heart disease is more common and more deadly because more people survive breast cancer, thanks to improvements in treatment, and because very few women develop ovarian cancer during their lifetime.
What about women who have a high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer?
Even for women who have a high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, such as women with a BRCA mutation, the numbers are different. If women with BRCA mutations don’t remove their ovaries, they actually have a higher risk of dying from ovarian cancer than from heart disease or breast cancer.
That’s why it’s especially important for women at high risk undergo preventive oophorectomy, or surgery to remove the ovaries. However, this operation puts women into early menopause. We know that the risk of heart disease increases for women after they experience menopause, so any woman undergoing this type of operation needs to talk to her health provider and make an appointment with a heart health provider, or cardiologist, to discuss these risks and how to manage them. Women at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer should see a provider well-versed in risk factors and heart disease. I really recommend finding a provider who specializes in women’s heart health.
Again, the research showing an increased heart disease risk with preventive ovarian surgery does not mean that high risk women should skip these surgeries. You should just make sure you are talking with your health providers about the risk.
How can all women protect themselves from developing heart disease?
Half the battle is to know what you are up against. You should see what your personal risk factors are for heart disease. Heart disease and breast and ovarian cancer actually share many important risk factors.
Having an overweight BMI, starting your period before the age of 12, drinking too much alcohol, and smoking can all increase your risk for heart disease as well as breast and ovarian cancer.
Just as it is important to collect your family health history of cancer, you should know about your family members’ heart health history, as factors like genetics can also play a role in heart disease. Additionally, you should keep track of those numbers and notes they take in the doctor’s office:
- blood pressure
- cholesterol levels
- any complications that you developed during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia
What kind of action can I take to reduce my risk of heart disease?
It’s really important to keep your weight down to a healthy level, I cannot emphasize that enough. When it comes to diet, I really try to keep things simple. My general advice is “eat food.” That means eating food in its naturally occurring form. If it comes in a wrapper, or if it’s not in its natural form, it’s probably not as good for you. I’m a big believer in moderation, but 80-90% of the time that is what your plate should be.
Exercise is also really important. Everyone is busy these days, so just move your body in any way shape or form that you can. Maybe you can’t go on a 7 mile-run, what you can do is climb up the stairs. Every bit that you can move your body counts toward exercise.
Another big thing is not smoking, especially for ladies. Smoking seems to have a more harmful effect in women than in men. You should also see a health provider regularly.
How can my health provider help me?
Coming to see a health provider is essential to reduce the risk of heart disease – especially for women with a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer, as I mentioned above. As a cardiologist, I have female patients who come in and say, “I feel a little foolish for making this appointment.” Don’t feel silly, it’s important that you are taking steps for your health!
If you have no family history of heart disease, and you haven’t reached menopause (early or naturally) in any form, you can wait till your 40s to make this kind of appointment, but there is no one-size-fits-all process for keeping track of your heart health. When you come to the appointment, know your risk factors, including any pregnancy history and family health history.
Your provider can run tests to see what your heart health looks like. They can sometimes find signs that disease is starting to spread long before you have any symptoms. We always want to diagnose this early on – diagnose it or prevent it from the beginning. By partnering with a provider who understands women’s heart health you can set yourself on a path to prevention. Please advocate for yourself!