Friday, January 19, 2007
A former journalist battles heart disease
Click the photo to see Charlie's story

Editor's note: Retired CNN journalist Charlie Hoff, 61, knows too well the toll of heart disease. Three heart attacks left him in congestive heart failure. After open-heart surgery and other treatments, his doctors said he might need a transplant. Then he read about a clinical trial in which a patient's own cells are used to rejuvenate heart tissue. He joined the trial a year ago and has seen great results. We asked him to blog today about his experience.

Heart disease is a killer but we don't start worrying about it until our hair begins to gray. When I look at the risk factors for heart disease: family history, diet, smoking and a lack of exercise, it can be scary. Few of us eschewed cheeseburgers for fruits and vegetables when we had a choice and many in my generation were heavy smokers.

The pain associated with the onset of a heart attack is angina. Angina is non-discriminating and may attack your body in places other than your chest. My first episode was signaled by a pain in the neck - I was alone, confused and in denial. I did not get help for several hours and I have paid the price.

The blockage in my coronary arteries prevented blood from getting to part of my heart muscle and that part of my heart died. I had suffered a myocardial infarction, an MI. That marvelous organ that sustains life beats in your chest more than 100,000 times a day. When the heart muscle is compromised, it's less efficient.

I had two more heart attacks and although I got help much faster, complications caused additional damage. My heart's ability to pump blood was significantly reduced and I was told I had congestive heart failure or CHF.

In congestive heart failure your organs don't get enough blood because the heart is not pushing the blood out to the body with enough force. Many organs are undermined, especially the kidneys. The domino effect of weak organs and prescribed medications combine with an accumulation of fluids in the lungs to sap your strength and make many routine tasks impossible.

A year ago, climbing stairs or walking up even the slightest incline left me breathless. When I learned about a new experimental treatment that might restore part of my damaged heart muscle I knew it was my best shot at getting well, or at least getting stronger.

I am very fortunate that one of the trial sites for this treatment is Atlanta's St. Joseph's Hospital, only about seven miles from my home. On January 30 of last year Dr. Nicholas Chronos and his team used a catheter in my left ventricle and injected millions of muscle cells harvested from my own body into the dead muscle tissue in my heart.

In the past year I learned how to manage my condition. I don't know yet whether my heart muscle is in fact stronger. Tests at the end of the treatment in a few weeks will tell more. I do know I feel stronger. Life is good. I am very lucky, and I intend to remain lucky and strong for many years. I believe my improvement is just beginning.

Since my first heart attack countless friends and associates come to me with worries about chest pains. We discuss their symptoms, I ask a few questions and tell them: "see a doctor."
Thursday, January 18, 2007
My childhood memories of cancer
Every time I hear the word "cancer," I think of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. The weekend before I started the fourth grade, my sister and I were conducting a used-toy sale in our driveway to benefit "Jerry's kids." We were broiling in the late summer sun, so we went inside to get something to drink. The telethon was on TV. My mom was on the phone, her back to us. The only words I remember hearing were "leukemia" and "Joe." I knew she was talking about her baby brother, my beloved Uncle Joe. And although I had never heard the word "leukemia" before, I knew something was terribly wrong.

My mom sat us down and told us my uncle had cancer and that he was heading to Maryland for treatment. I asked if he was going to die. My mom started to cry.

By Columbus Day, cancer had killed my Uncle Joe. He was only 22.

I don't remember much from the funeral except that my parents wanted us to know that good could come from my uncle's death. My uncle's illness, they said, would help doctors learn more about how to beat cancer in the future.

Wednesday morning, I was happy to read that U.S. cancer rates have dropped for the second year in a row. (Full Story) Science is making amazing breakthroughs. But I think it has something to do with the fact that many people are taking a stand and refuse to think of cancer as an automatic death sentence.

As part of Dr. Sanjay Gupta's special about cancer (Saving Your Life) I recently visited southwest Georgia, which has one of the highest mortality rates for cancer in the nation. There, I met up with Grace Miller and Jane Stoutenborough. They are "foot soldiers" in the war against cancer. Many afternoons they drive the back roads of rural Georgia visiting people in their homes and offering free cancer screenings. Their efforts are paying off. Recently, one of the women they visited learned she was in the early stages of cervical cancer. She got treatment and is doing great. It's just one more example of the little victories we are winning on the war against cancer.

I still can't watch the Jerry Lewis Telethon without crying. I still get sad when I think about losing my Uncle Joe so young. He would have been a great dad. But more than 20 years later, I still believe my parent's words are true. No cancer death is in vain. Each one helps doctors come one step closer to saving someone else's Uncle Joe. Do you have an "uncle Joe" whose battle with cancer inspired you?
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Paying the price for preventive care

Last week I had my heart checked out and this morning I talked about the exam on CNN.

Truth is, I feel pretty good, I try and stay healthy and I eat well. I don't take any medications, but I do worry about heart disease because of family history.

If you talk to a dozen different cardiologists, you will probably get a dozen different responses about what a healthy person should do about preventing heart disease. My cardiologist wanted to examine my heart through a series of blood tests and a very sophisticated test called a CT angiogram or CTA.

My blood is being tested for the usual suspects, cholesterol and fats, but also things like genetic profile and inflammatory markers. I will get those results in a couple of weeks. The CT angiogram, which was completely non-invasive except for an IV, took incredibly high quality pictures of my heart, as you can see. The test will detect any calcifications as well as narrowing in the blood vessels and abnormalities in the blood vessel wall.

My test was completely normal. Reassuring.

It is one of the best tests for identifying heart disease, but it's not cheap - a little more than $1,000. Unless you are having some problem like chest pain, insurance probably won't cover it.

Many doctors feel that sort of thinking by the insurance companies is preventing us from becoming a culture of prevention. What do you think? Is an ounce of prevention really worth a pound of cure?
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Hunting for clues to Castro's health
All through the night, we at CNN have been trying to learn more about the health of Fidel Castro.

Out of all the stories we do, getting details about the health of a public leader such as Castro can be the most difficult. It seems now that he is less likely to have cancer and more likely to have terrible diverticulitis. He is believed to have had three operations since July and continues to have a severe abdominal infection.

In fact, a Spanish newspaper reported said that Castro was continuing to "leak half a liter of fluid into his abdominal cavity every day." This can cause an infection known as peritonitis, which can be among the most difficult to control. There is no question that he is a very sick 80-year-old.

I always find the news gathering at CNN to be remarkable. In Spain, we have reporter Al Goodman, who chased down leads all day, eventually contacting a doctor who has examined Castro, and who denied the Spanish newspaper's report. We also have Morgan Neill, one of the few international reporters allowed in Havana. Finally, our international desk is always humming and was able to immediately translate the reported details of Castro's operations for me so that I could talk about them on television this morning.

Our few minutes of TV news were the result of lots of incredibly hard work by many people in several countries. As a result, there is a very good chance that CNN viewers actually know more about the health of Fidel Castro than the residents of Cuba.

Many think this is the very best of the journalistic process and the most comprehensive newsgathering. Others think that the personal health of someone, no matter how public a figure, should remain private. What do you think? Does it make a difference that we can bring you such specific details about the health of Fidel Castro?
Monday, January 15, 2007
Stop a killer, but promote sex? That is the question...
Forty-three years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech, this country is still divided, particularly when it comes to disparities in health care. January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. The numbers couldn't be more telling: Each year cervical cancer kills thousands of women, and, according to the American Cancer Society, the number of new cases of cervical cancer is more than 50 percent higher in black women than in whites. And African American women are more than twice as likely to die from the disease.

Family history, smoking and being overweight all increase your risk for this cancer. However, it has a high cure rate if caught early, and regular pap smears, which detect abnormal or cancer cells are critical.

But the single most important risk comes from a sexually transmitted disease called human papilloma virus or HPV. There is no cure or treatment, but since last year, there is a vaccine - Gardasil - the first, and only, vaccine to prevent HPV and cervical cancer. It's approved for use in girls and women ages 9 to 26, and it protects against 70 percent of cervical cancers.

Here in the nation's capital, a controversy over the vaccine is brewing. Last week, the city council introduced a bill that could make the District of Columbia one of the first jurisdictions, to require vaccinating sixth-grade girls - under 13 years old - mandatory.

Proponents of Gardasil hope that vaccinating children before they're sexually active will reduce the risk of HPV infection and cervical cancer. Opponents fear that by hearing about sex, and a sexually transmitted disease, so early, young girls might be less likely to abstain and more likely to become sexually active.

I don't live in D.C., but I am a black woman and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter. If history is a judge, she has a greater risk of getting cervical cancer than her white girlfriends. I haven't had a conversation yet with her pediatrician about the HPV vaccine, and I would like to think that I still have a few years before I need to talk to my daughter about STDs. The questions remain for many - what age is appropriate to talk about HPV and the vaccine? Should it be mandatory? Or is this much ado about nothing?
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
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