Staying Ahead of Heart Failure: Janet’s Story

To see Janet Henry now, as a successful Human Resources executive for an international chain of stores, and gracious hostess who loves to entertain, it’s hard to realize all she has been through. In the space of one year, she experienced serious health crises: breast cancer, followed by toxic shock, followed by heart failure.

Janet.heart.failure“Many people don’t realize that heart failure is not the same as heart disease,” explains cardiologist Sara Weiss, MD. “Patients with heart disease experience atherosclerotic plaque, or hardening of the vessels which may lead to a heart attack. Heart failure happens when the heart muscle is weakened and is failing to pump consistently enough to serve the needs of the body.”

Heart failure can be caused by heart attack, alcohol abuse, or, in Janet’s case, a complication of the medication she was receiving to combat breast cancer.

When the cancer therapy began, Janet’s oncologist Nanette Robinson, MD, knew one of the biologic medications (a medicinal preparation made from living organisms and their products) would have to be monitored closely because of its possible impact on the heart. Throughout treatment, she and Dr. Weiss, communicated, overseeing Janet’s treatment to minimize, when possible, any impact on her heart. Then, in the middle of the cancer treatment, Janet contracted toxic shock which added to the stress on her heart. Soon after, she began to feel the extreme fatigue that is an indicator of heart failure.

“Because I was in the middle of cancer therapy it was difficult to understand what was causing the fatigue,” Janet remembers. “When we determined the fatigue was caused by heart failure, I began seeing Dr. Weiss weekly. She prescribed and adjusted medication strengths until we had the right dosage and I didn’t feel the fatigue anymore.

“I think I’m doing really well with the medication,” Janet adds. “My heart numbers are right where they’re supposed to be.”

“Heart failure is very treatable,” according to Dr. Weiss. “Medication and special pacemakers are the primary treatment. Patients are also encouraged to make lifestyle changes, which include eating healthy food, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight.”

Heart failure can also be experienced as shortness of breath because of fluid buildup in their lungs or abdomen. To prevent heart failure, Dr. Weiss recommends that patients work with their primary care provider to learn what their health numbers are for blood pressure, cholesterol level, body mass index and glucose level. They should also follow a plan to control existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Janet is now cancer-free and her heart failure is under control. Along with the medical support she received, Janet credits Team Janet, her family and friends whose “tremendous support saw her through this difficult time.” Janet maintains her health with a low salt diet. She also added a new member to her family, an energetic black lab named Annie, who encourages her to walk every day.


A version of this story also appears in the Virginia Mason Health System 2018 Annual Report. 

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