Sara Campos posing in front of a mural

Nearly a decade after she was declared cancer-free, Sara Campos got another life-threatening diagnosis: congestive heart failure.

The suburban Chicago woman initially wasn’t concerned when she felt ill following a big family dinner. Her stomach hurt and there was a burning sensation in her chest.

“We had tacos, and I figured I just overate and it was indigestion,” Campos said.

She tried taking an antacid, but nothing seemed to help. There was also a pain in her chest.

A friend of the family who was a medical student suggested Campos may be having a heart attack and urged the family to take her to the emergency room.

But it wasn’t a heart attack. Testing revealed Campos, then 65, had congestive heart failure.

“It was such a shock for me,” she said. “I never realized that was a possibility.”

Looking back, Campos realized she had been having symptoms of heart failure for more than a month. She constantly felt worn out, something she attributed to the wear and tear of caring for her grandchildren, then ages 4 and 5, plus another preschooler.

“I thought maybe I was overdoing it because the kids had me running around so much,” Campos said.

Sara Campos's familyHeart failure is a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently enough to meet the body’s needs. The condition can result from other conditions that put added stress on the heart muscle, such as an illness that affects the heart, or damage from sustained conditions such as high blood pressure.

The most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease.

Doctors told Campos that her heart failure was a consequence of damage caused by the chemotherapy she had for her breast cancer treatment nine years earlier in 2000.

Nearly 6 million Americans suffer from heart failure and it is estimated that one in five Americans will develop heart failure, making it one of the most common, costly and deadly heart diseases in America.

After overcoming breast cancer, Campos was prepared to manage life with heart failure and a second journey of survival.

She had heard about the risks of heart attack and stroke, but congestive heart failure was a new term for her. She learned what she could about her condition and then worked to find a doctor she felt could provide the best care.

The first doctor said she would need a heart transplant to survive. A second doctor told her she had six months to live. Campos refused to accept such a grim assessment and sought a third opinion, this time from a cardiologist who suggested additional testing and worked to manage her condition with medication.

Finding a doctor willing to work with her was key for Campos.

“With the first doctors, I just felt like a number. But when I found this one, I finally felt like I could make it,” she said.

Campos can’t change the fact that she has congestive heart failure, but said believes accepting her condition was important in managing her condition.

“The damage was done, you have to accept it so that you can move forward,’ she said.

Campos worked to focus on what she could control, rather than focus on things she couldn’t change.

“I had to get educated and understand why this happened, but after that, it’s a matter of, ‘What can I do to make my heart stronger?” she said.

She made changes to her diet to avoid red meat and significantly reduce her sodium intake. She is also in regular contact with her doctor to make sure her heart isn’t getting significantly weaker.

“I realized I had to do my best to keep healthy and do what I could to beat this,” she said.

Campos tries to keep active, though she no longer has the energy to do the 45-minute walk to the park she used to do several times a week.Sara Campos with her family

“I still go up and down the stairs and do things around the house,” she said. “I try to keep moving, but have to be careful not to wear myself out.”

Understanding her limits has been important.

Campos now has a housekeeper come once a week and gets help from her family with other daily chores that require more exertion. Her husband does the dishes and her kids help with other chores when they visit.

“My family has been very supportive for all my illnesses,” Campos said. “My kids are always making sure I’m not getting sick or doing too much.”

Campos is also careful to keep doing what she can for herself.

“If I just stayed home in bed and let people baby me all the time I would have been a basket case,” she said.

Her positive attitude plays an important role, said Campos, now 71.

“I’m alive and I got to see my kids grow and see my grandchildren,” Campos said. “That’s all that matters.”