YAKIMA, Washington: Amae Merrill, 34, had no history of heart problems when she began experiencing chest pain over the summer.
The fourth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Yakima could have just chalked it up to stress like many other people her age would tend to do. But Merrill sensed something was wrong.
A visit to her doctor and then a cardiologist revealed surprising news — one of Merrill’s cardiac arteries was 99 percent blocked. Doctors were able to put in a stent, which kept her from having a heart attack.
“When I woke up I felt like a new person,” said Merrill of her health after the surgery. “I didn’t realize how sick I was until I had blood and oxygen flowing again. If something doesn’t feel right, you need to tell your doctor and don’t take no for an answer. I’m only 34 years old, I’m not your typical heart disease patient but I knew something didn’t feel right.”
Heart disease, strokes, and cancer are among the biggest killers in the United States, said Tanny Davenport, a family practitioner and division chief of ambulatory medicine at Virginia Mason Memorial.
But these health problems often don’t creep up quietly and zap a person when it’s least expected. There are important signs that people — young and old alike — dismiss until it’s too late.
Here are five ways your body may be telling you something’s wrong:
1. Shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, or a feeling of heart fluttering.
Chronic fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of heart disease, said James Kneller, an electrophysiology cardiologist at Astria Heart Institute in Yakima (formerly part of Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center). As is shortness of breath — an overworked heart, running through its energy stores faster than normal, likely will contribute to fatigue and being out of breath. Trouble is, while easily ignored or explained away, these symptoms can signal a variety of heart diseases, including coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, and heart attack.
Just ask Bacil “Base” Shirley. A year of ignoring debilitating fatigue, indigestion after meals, and shortness of breath caught up with the Yakima resident when he fell asleep while driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a California vacation. It wasn’t the first time he experienced the potential heart disease symptom; Shirley, 66, also would doze off while playing video games — a noticeable change to his daily life.
With a family history of heart disease — his father and four brothers all died from it within a year of their 40th birthdays — Shirley put off a trip to Vermont and finally went to the doctor, who told him to immediately check into
a hospital. A week later, Shirley had six bypasses — the most a person can have — during open heart surgery at Astria Heart Institute.
“If I had not gone in and asked to have the stress test and had instead taken the trip to Vermont, everyone agrees I wouldn’t have come back from it,” Shirley said.
2. Unexplained, sudden weight loss or gain
Many people may have heard the medical advice to be aware of unexplained, sudden weight loss or gain. But what is “sudden?” And how much weight should be worrisome?
Davenport said that while it varies from person to person, a good rule of thumb is about 10 pounds within a month or two without any diet or exercise changes.
“There could be something wrong with their thyroid, but it’s good to make sure there isn’t anything seriously wrong,” he said.
Unexplained weight loss could be a symptom of cancer, a viral infection such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), gastroenteritis and parasite infection, among others. Unexplained weight gain could be a symptom of fluid retention, which is common with heart failure and kidney disease.
3. Lumps or bumps in the neck area
While women and men know regular breast self-examinations can help with early detection of breast cancer, many people may not realize they also should be on the lookout for lumps or bumps in the neck area. Any such lump or bump — a potential indication of an enlarged lymph node or infection — that doesn’t go away within a couple of weeks should be evaluated by a doctor.
4. Loss of appetite
A change in appetite, Davenport said, is not a symptom to ignore. A reduced desire to eat or eating very little and quickly becoming full are changes that should prompt a trip to the doctor. Loss of appetite can be a symptom of chronic liver disease, dementia, HIV, hepatitis, kidney failure, and other problems.
5. Blood in the stool or black, tarry bowel movements
Davenport said this symptom is especially important for people over 40. While it could be a sign of a hemorrhoid, it also could be a symptom of colon cancer.
Davenport said one of the most frustrating aspects of his work is seeing people come in sick with diseases that could have been caught early and treated. The fact is, Davenport and other health experts say, most people will eventually die from a heart attack, stroke, or cancer.
“But if we can intervene sooner, people can have longer and more enjoyable lives,” Davenport said. In other words, regular checkups with your doctor and following recommendations for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, sexually transmitted infections, and other routine health screenings can save and prolong your life.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Davenport said.
Unlike years ago when doctors frequently chastised patients for smoking, eating the wrong food or overeating and indulging in other bad habits, Davenport said he and other physicians now are more interested in finding out the types of changes patients want to make in their lives and then helping them make a plan.
“People come in and think there are 50 things to be done, but in reality there are three or four things you should probably be doing, besides what we tell everyone — exercise and eat right,” he said. “A lot of people walk away feeling better than they thought they would, and that annual visit can make all the difference.”