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Star Jones: 'I am the face of heart disease'

By Star Jones, Special to CNN
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1451 GMT (2251 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • TV personality Star Jones was diagnosed with heart disease in 2010
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women, but it's preventable
  • February is American Heart Month, and Friday is National Wear Red Day

Editor's note: Star Jones, a lawyer by trade, has worked as a commentator and host on numerous television shows, most notably as co-host of ABC's "The View" from 1997 to 2006. The best-selling author underwent open-heart surgery after being diagnosed with heart disease four years ago. Today, Jones is a National Volunteer with The American Heart Association and has received numerous awards and recognition for her work as a heart-health advocate.

(CNN) -- As I sat in Dr. Valentin Fuster's exam room at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, only one word raced through my mind: "Whoa!" That was it. I was floored. I really couldn't understand why this was happening to me -- and now.

I had beaten obesity and, for the first time in my life, I was hitting the gym regularly and practicing portion control in my diet. I'd taken up tennis and, in fact, was actually pretty decent. This is me we're talking about --someone who'd never run for, hit or even caught a ball until I was 42.

Even though I felt and looked great, I was experiencing what I now know are the classic symptoms of heart disease: frequent intense heart palpitations, light-headedness, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue.

But I always thought that heart disease was an old white dude's disease. That's what I'd seen on television anyway. It didn't happen to newly skinny black women who had it going on. Or, at least thought they had it going on.

'I am the face of heart disease'

I couldn't have been more wrong. I was about to be the face of heart disease.

When my doctors told me they were going to crack my chest open and take my heart out of my body to repair my aortic valve and remove a subaortic membrane to stave off future heart issues, it scared the crap out of me! I sincerely considered not having the surgery.

But I knew I needed to be strong. So, I got focused. I became determined. And yes, at times, I was terrified.

Anyone who goes through cardiac surgery and tells you they weren't scared is lying. We're all human.

Fortunately, the skill level of my physicians and the resources that were available to me left me encouraged by the prognosis for recovery. Amazingly, even though the doctors stopped my heart for 22 minutes on the operating table, I made it through open-heart surgery without any complications.

As part of my recovery, I elected to do cardiac rehab. That was the second-best decision of my life. Three months of pushing myself to the limit with steadfast determination to recover fully was my goal. The discipline necessary to strengthen your heart after surgery is relentless and exhausting but so worth it.

I was lucky. No, more like blessed. I came through heart disease, and today I'm a survivor.

With my recovery, I realized I had an obligation that reached beyond my own health. I made a commitment to use whatever platform I have in the public eye to raise awareness of heart disease in women.

According to the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all Americans. It's the No. 1 killer of African-Americans, and it's the No. 1 killer of women. So, you see, heart disease for me is personal -- very personal.

For three years, I've served as the National Volunteer for the AHA and a volunteer spokeswoman for their Go Red For Women movement.

The movement aims to dispel myths surrounding heart disease and raise awareness. It's a passionate, emotional and social initiative designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health. The goal is to harness the energy, passion and power women have to band together and, collectively, wipe out our No. 1 killer.

With National Wear Red Day coming up this Friday, I'm reminded that bringing awareness to heart disease isn't about just wearing red one day a year. It's a lifestyle. It's about sharing your story and empowering each other to make heart health a priority starting now.

I'm thankful for the voice I have when it comes to fighting this preventable disease. I've made it my mission to do what I know how to do -- talk -- to anyone who'll listen to my story. And, believe me, I've been coast to coast sharing my story and educating others along the way.

Today, I'm living my best life in great health. I'm so proud I've spent the past 10 years getting myself in the best physical and emotional shape I could be in.

I learned late in life that my health is my greatest asset and encouraging healthy living is my purpose in life. For she who has health has hope, and she who has hope has everything.

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