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Cancer Patient Reflects on Surviving 9-Week-Long Heart Attack


Most heart attacks only last twenty minutes or a few hours at most but one woman in northeast Portland recently survived one that lasted over two months. It all started with a pain in the center of her chest after two and a half years of battling cancer. Beven Byrnes, the mother of six-year-old twins, said she wouldn’t be alive today if she hadn’t trusted her instincts and sought help.

When her symptoms started, any physical movement would cause her pain, even things like walking to the bathroom. Her kids even called it the “sloth walk, because I couldn’t do anything unless I did it in really slow motion,” she joked.

Byrnes initially thought the issue was related to COVID-19. The nurse at the hospital gave her some medication and sent her home, but she went back several days later when the pain returned.

“They’re like, ‘we don’t know what to tell you. Go back to the ER and they’ll do some more tests,’” Byrnes said.

The back and forth lasted for weeks. All the while, she did her best not to scare her family after her recent bout with cancer.

“We believe in positive thinking,” she laughed. “We did a lot of, ‘this isn’t my heart. It’s going to be ok. It’ll just take time.’”

She tried to lead a normal life while dealing with the pain as she continued seeking the proper care. In total, she visited the ER more than half a dozen times and saw 19 different specialists.

“Nothing helped. Not even a little bit,” Byrnes said. “It was an intense time for me emotionally, but life has to go on. I’m the mother of 6-and-a-half-year-old twins. I was really frustrated that I couldn’t get to the bottom of what was going on.”

Byrnes eventually ended up at her primary care doctor, whom she hadn’t seen in three years due to her cancer.

“She took me seriously and said, ‘I think this is your heart and we need to get you looked at immediately.’”

She went in for tests right away and within 24 hours the doctors told her that her artery was 100% blocked, a condition known as a widowmaker heart attack. This is when a blockage occurs in the largest artery in the heart, which supplies 50% of the heart muscle’s blood supply.

“Because 12% or less of people survive it,” Byrnes added. “It often leaves a widow behind.”

When she woke up from surgery the next day, the doctor told her everything that happened. She was shocked to hear them use the word “heart attack” after so many weeks of visiting specialists.

“How in the world,” she asked, “after nine weeks? You absolutely have to be your own healthcare advocate right now. There’s too much room for things to fall between the cracks because there are not enough people doing it and the ones that are, are so overworked. It means potentially lives are lost and I think I’m really lucky that mine wasn’t.” <sic>

She wants other people to take their symptoms seriously and get checked out even if they think their pain is being caused by something else.

“I have since come to learn that among adults 55 and younger, women are far more likely than men to experience lesser-known acute heart attack symptoms in addition to chest pain,” she wrote in a recent blog post. 

“And more than half of the doctors seeing women who seek care for those symptoms prior to being hospitalized, might not even realize that the symptoms are heart related. Misinterpreting such heart attack symptoms puts young women at a greater risk of death than similarly aged men. I had no idea.”


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