As a child, Terri Dome endured heavy doses of radiation and chemotherapy. Her problems were over in high school, she thought. Her cancerous tumor disappeared, her hair grew back, and she regained the weight she'd lost.
At midlife, Elizabeth Nealy felt an odd pressure in her chest. And breathlessness with the slightest exertion. It wasn't anything, she told herself. She just needed to exercise and lay off the fast food.
Philamena Baird was planning a vacation with her daughters when she struggled with an ache in her jaw, pain between her shoulders and fatigue. Probably, she told herself, she was overexercising.
All three women had heart problems.
In her case, Baird said, she was in denial. "We've got to stop denying what's going on with our bodies. We've got to get past, 'Heart disease couldn't happen to me.' "
In fact, it's the No. 1 killer of women and more deadly than all forms of cancer combined, said Dr. Stephanie Coulter, director of Texas Heart Institute's Center for Women's Heart and Vascular Health.
The American Heart Association's annual Go Red for Women luncheon will be May 15 to raise awareness of the risk of heart disease, the cause of one in three women's deaths each year.
"Heart disease kills more women than men," Coulter said. "Roughly 405,000 women died last year, compared to 385,000 men."
With that in mind, Dome, Nealy and Baird share their stories.
From cancer to heart disease
Dome was 12 and playing in a softball league when her coach noticed she was having trouble running the bases. Her mom wasn't worried - she thought Terri had the flu. A doctor's visit led to a devastating diagnosis: non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Dome, 51, remembers being blasted with radiation and chemotherapy. The tumor disappeared. She went on to high school and college. She got married, and she and her husband, Steve Dome, settled into busy careers.
She was in international business, he was president of Marathon Realty Advisers. Life was good. Then she started fainting. The problem was her heart, damaged by the radiation treatments.
"When I was a child with cancer, the goal was to keep me alive," Dome said. "The doctors weren't thinking about my life as an adult."
In her late 20s, Dome got the first of four pacemakers. While her health was relatively stable, she landed a dream job with LucasFilm Entertainment. That was in 2002, and for the next six years, she was based in San Francisco and traveled 33 weeks out of the year.
Dome wasn't hugely concerned when she started to struggle with shortness of breath. But doctors at Stanford University knew the fix would be much tougher, if it worked at all. They opened her chest and tried to remove her pericardium, the thin, double-layered sac that encloses the heart.
They could get only the front of the sac. The back side was calcified. Again, Dome thinks the problem was the radiation from her childhood.
In 2008, Dome quit her job and moved back to Houston. She and Steve had managed their commuter marriage just fine, but she knew she had to be at home while she waited for a heart transplant at the Texas Heart Institute, which came in 2009.
"I just passed the five-year mark," Dome said. "It's a colossal milestone.
Still, she is not free of health problems. Her lungs were damaged by the childhood radiation, too, so she still struggles with breathlessness.
She tries to handle the chronic problem with grit and grace.
"I think all the time about the person who gave me my heart," Dome said. "I've been given this gift, and I know I'm lucky to be here. I'm so glad I was invited back to the party."
"I just thought it was a sign that I needed to lose weight," she said.
Nealy was 50 when the symptoms started but 56 when she 'fessed up to her doctor at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. One test led to another until she found herself on a gurney, headed for the operating room.
"I had three blockages in my heart - my arteries were almost completely closed."
Nealy barely had time to call her mom in Mobile, Ala., before the doctors started the bypass surgery.
"I was boo-hooing like a baby," Nealy, 58, remembers. "My mom is a wonderful person, and she calmed me down so it didn't seem quite so drastic. Both my mom and dad have had heart disease."
She is not a cook, but she's given up most of the fast food hamburgers and fried chicken that she once depended on. Now she eats dinner with her sister, who makes her stir-fried vegetables.
Nealy also schedules regular walks with friends, and she's joined a nearby gym.
She jokes the challenge is to walk and talk at the same time.
"My suggestion to women is to exercise, eat right and stay away from fatty foods," she said. "I had to go through surgery to find out what I needed to do. Don't be like me."
Nealy has help with weight loss, which she finds agonizingly slow. She's a recreational therapist at Michael E. DeBakey V.A. Medical Center.
"Those vets will tell me in a minute if I have something I shouldn't be eating."
Too busy to be sick
Baird has six children, eight grandchildren and limitless work to do in Houston's philanthropic community.
"I don't have time to be sick," she told Arthur Baird, her husband, as she complained about jaw pain, fatigue and an ache between her shoulders in 2007.
He wasn't impressed by that logic.
Within days, doctors at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute - Southwest diagnosed her with a 98 percent blockage in her right descending artery.
"When they came to tell me I was going to surgery immediately, I said, 'I have a gala in three weeks. It can't be that bad.' "
It was. After the bypass surgery, Baird found herself in a rehab group with 12 men.
She knew she was lucky to be there. Still, she flinched as they welcomed her to the "Zipper Club." She was hiding her scars, not laughing about them.
In 2013 - the Friday before Thanksgiving - Baird found herself back at Memorial Hermann. That Saturday, doctors inserted two stents in clogged arteries. That Sunday the doctors put in two more. Just as Baird was recovering, a nurse noticed her distended midsection and called for a doctor on the double.
The thoracic surgeon came in, pulled back the covers and said, "Now."
"All of a sudden my bed was moving out of the room," Baird said.
She was headed back to surgery, this time to repair an abdominal aneurism.
Today, said Baird, she is much better. "I don't quite have the energy I used to have, and I've been in the process of uncomplicating my life. Before, I didn't know how to say 'no.' I've learned it's a complete sentence."
Still, she makes time to talk to women about heart disease.
"Honor your body, honor yourself and abandon denial," she said. "Indigestion, insomnia and shortness of breath - those are all really good indicators. And fatigue. When fatigue starts managing your life, that's a sign. You need to see a cardiologist."