Heart disease is not a statistic. It's a disease that affects women in every community in the United States—and may affect you. It can alter or damage your life, or even take it away.

These "stories from the heart" tell how heart disease has changed the lives and outlooks of women like you. They explain why you should take steps now to protect your heart.

Age 49

"I consider myself to be relatively healthy and I exercise for about 90 minutes every morning. I started having pain in my chest and face during my exercising, and finally went to the cardiologist. I never thought that the pain in my face could be related to my heart, so I was shocked when the tests showed that I had had a heart attack. I thought I was too young, but my father died of a heart attack when he was only 38, so I had family history as a risk factor. After my second heart attack, I knew that I needed to help get the message out. Women need to know that heart disease is their biggest health threat."

Age 61
"I've always considered myself to be a very healthy person. I exercise regularly, I don't smoke, and I'm not overweight. So when I found out six months ago that I have high cholesterol, it came as a surprise. After my doctor's appointment, I wanted to learn as much as I could about high cholesterol. I started doing research and reading everything I could get my hands on. I learned that my high cholesterol put me at risk for heart disease. No one in my family has had heart disease, but my mom does have a history of high blood pressure, so I've started making changes. The main difference has been my diet. I'm making an effort to avoid foods with lots of saturated fat and cholesterol. I am eating less red meat and more fish. I know that my daily walks are important. I am more conscious about my health, which is something I used to take for granted. I'm really trying to take care of myself and my family. My husband found out that he has high cholesterol too, so we're both trying to make changes in our lives. It helps having each other there for support."

Age 54

"Sixteen years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At that time, people didn't talk about it like they do now, and there was not much support for women dealing with the disease. So I started a support group for women coping with breast cancer and more recently, I have spent several years working as an advocate for breast cancer issues. When I had cancer, my doctors and I were so focused on beating it that I didn't even realize my risk for another condition: heart disease. A few years ago I had an angina attack, which was a wake-up call for me. I talked with my doctors, and I now understand my risk for heart disease, which is something I don't think many women do. Since then I have made major life changes and, as a result, I have lost more than 20 pounds. Women's heart disease isn't widely talked about, just as breast cancer wasn't when I was diagnosed with it 16 years ago. As a nurse, I know that heart disease is the biggest health threat to women and I hope that more women will realize it too."

Age 46
"My doctor diagnosed me as having a heart murmur a couple of years ago and said I should check in with a cardiologist every few years. I started feeling out of breath while doing everyday things, like practicing soccer with my daughter. At first, I just chalked it up to being out of shape, but it got worse. I've always had a lot of energy, so I went to my doctor. She told me my heart condition could be fatal if I didn't get to a hospital very soon. A few weeks later, I had surgery to replace my aortic valve. It's important for people to realize that life doesn't have to come to a halt just because they've been a heart patient. The joke among my colleagues, clients, and those who have known me for decades is that I still don't slow down! There are a lot of things I want to do in my life, so I know it's important to take care of my health. Most women put everyone else before themselves, but you can't put off taking care of your heart."

Age 52
"So many of my female relatives had diabetes when I was growing up that I didn't realize how dangerous it is. My wake-up call came when my mother had a massive heart attack at a young age. I started looking around and realized how many of my female relatives with diabetes died of heart problems. Diabetes is high among American Indians, but my sisters and I just weren't taught about what could happen if you had it, or that it could be prevented. I was diagnosed with diabetes 3 years ago—only 6 months after my mother died from a second massive heart attack. A lot of Comanche women don't talk about their health, but I'm trying to be open with my kids about diabetes and educate them about how to eat better and get more exercise. I tell them that they're doing these things for me, but more importantly for their own health and their own children's lives as well. I know that if I don't change things in my life, I might not live to see my grandchildren. Every day, I talk myself into doing things for my health, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, eating more fruits and vegetables. These things haven't become habits for me yet, but I'm working on it."

Age 41
"Both my mother and sister had heart attacks and eventually open-heart surgery. This was a wake-up call for me. I started looking at my life and the risk factors I had and realized some things had to change. The most important thing for me has been finding the right doctor—someone who is interested in helping prevent heart disease, rather than waiting until I have a heart attack. As a woman, you have to be able to ask your doctor the right questions and be aggressive about your own care."

Age 43
"I recently had a physical, and was surprised to hear my doctor say I have several risk factors for heart disease. Around the same time I saw a TV special about heart disease and its complications and risks, so it all really hit home. I'm concerned about this and want to change it. I have to lose weight and reduce my cholesterol. This is just the beginning of a long battle and I know it won't be easy, but I know I have to do it."

Age 38
"It's only been a few weeks since I had a heart attack and it really hasn't sunk in. I just keep thinking, 'I'm too young for this.' If I didn't work at a hospital, I wouldn't have even known what was going on. I just thought it was indigestion. I know I need to make changes, but it's easier said than done. Quitting smoking has been much harder than I expected. Between work, taking classes and four children, there really isn't a lot of time to think about caring for myself. But I have started paying attention to what's going on with me, just like I would do for one of the kids."

Age 45
"In 1991, I went to the ER with chest pains twice in one week. They said it was ulcers. Then the pain became excruciating. Again, the ER said there was nothing they could do. I refused to leave and was admitted for observation. Later, the cardiologist on duty saw my EKG and asked, 'Where's the 34-year-old who had the massive heart attack?' I had emergency surgery. But the damage was done; only part of my heart muscle functions. I had to quit a job I loved, and my life is completely changed. They thought I was too young to have a heart attack."