My Drastic Diet Helped My Heart

Feb 23, 2019 | Heart Health

My adult life so far has been filled with doctors telling me that I’m “too young to have that,” and that “that”  is probably nothing and will go away on its own. Those were the words I heard before I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 32 and heart disease at 42. I’m a living testament to the fact that only we know our bodies the best, and we sometimes need to push to get the help we need.

Twelve years ago I went to the doctor feeling lethargic, feverish, and with a cough that had lingered much too long for my peace of mind. I could also feel a lump in the side of my neck. I was told it was nothing, that the lump would go away when I felt better. But I just knew that something wasn’t right, so I went back to the doctor. As a young wife and mother of a 5- and a 2-year old, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. Months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments later, I was sent home, cancer-free. 

At my last few appointments, I remember my oncologist telling me that there was a small chance that 10 or so years down the road I could encounter some side effects from my treatments, but all I was really hearing were the words “cancer-free.” Over the years as scan after scan came back clear, I grew confident in my health again, and my cancer treatment seemed a million years ago.

But, about 10 years later when I rather quickly got to the point that I couldn’t walk up the stairs in my own house without losing my breath and having chest pains, I knew something was very wrong again. Was my cancer back and a tumor pushing on my chest? Was it my heart? Why would it be my heart? I had no family history of heart problems. I was 42 and had never had a problem with my heart, but it felt like someone had my heart in their hands and was wringing and squeezing it.

My husband took me to the ER one night when the pain was so bad I couldn’t get up from our couch. I don’t think he really believed there was anything truly wrong with me besides maybe a little heartburn. It was all I could do to walk from the car into the ER waiting room, but the staff didn’t seem too concerned. After a wait, the doctor checked me out and said he didn’t see anything wrong. Because of my age and the lack of a family history of heart problems — and because it was the weekend — he was sending me home. He would have someone call me to set up a stress test for the next week just to check my heart. He thought it was heartburn.

When I went for the stress test two days later, I had to take breaks walking from the parking lot into the hospital. When it was time for the treadmill test, I lasted a matter of seconds before they stopped me and scheduled me for an immediate heart cath. I had a 98 percent blockage in my LAD artery, or the artery known as the widowmaker. The cardiologist showed me the picture of how big the blockage was and told me in another day or two I probably would have suffered a heart attack. It was determined the blockage was caused by damage from the radiation I had undergone 10 years before for my cancer.

During the next two years, I had three stents put in for 90-98 percent blockages, one stent in front of the other in that same spot. The third one was only six months after the previous one, and my cardiologist was alarmed. In this span of time I had gained weight and my cholesterol had also risen. He diagnosed me with aggressive heart disease. He said there was no more room for a stent in that area of my artery, so the next step was going to have to be a bypass.

I was devastated, thinking I had already derailed my body, that I was just biding my time until I’d exhausted all medical interventions available to patch me up, and then I would die, younger than most.

I desperately started researching what I could do to stop this heart disease train. I stumbled across a book by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. of the Cleveland Clinic called Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. In it he shares research about his patients with serious heart disease who had switched to a whole food, plant-based diet with no oil and had stopped their heart disease in its tracks.

Was that even possible? If so, why weren’t doctors recommending this? I had never heard of it, and it sounded drastic, but I decided drastic was the route I needed to take. Between my third stent and the follow-up appointment three weeks later, I went on the whole foods plant-based  diet. I quickly lost 25 pounds and surprised my doctor with an HDL cholesterol level of 40, down 50 points in three weeks. My total cholesterol level had decreased by 55, and my triglycerides had dropped 67 points. I added running once or twice a week to my routine, and I easily lost 25 more pounds and had to buy new clothes.

I’ve stayed on the plan for more than a year now. It’s definitely become a lifestyle. My taste buds have changed to appreciate the simple flavors of vegetables. I haven’t had chest pains since, except for occasional heartburn. I feel I’ve been given a second chance at life. 

My husband likes to tell people that when it’s dinnertime, I just walk out to our backyard and graze on the grass, but there is a lot you can eat on this heart-friendly plan. Any sort of whole grains, including breads, pastas, brown rice, quinoa, etc., as long as they are egg-free, dairy-free, and oil-free. The hardest part for me is not using any oil. Most packaged foods are prepared with oil, but I have learned to saute with vegetable stock instead of oil.

If you are feeling like something is not right with your body, listen to what it’s telling you. No one knows your body like you do, even if you are “too young” or have no family history. Take charge of your healing.

Extra tidbit: The best strategies for transitioning to a plant-based diet and why it is okay for your food choices to not be perfect all the time.