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As One Philadelphia Mother Learned Firsthand, Many Women With Heart Disease Are Told It's Just Stress

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Friday is "Go Red for Women," kicking off heart month. It's aimed at raising awareness to let people know heart disease in women can be very different.

Heart problems aren't always obvious, especially in women. And symptoms like shortness of breath can be an indication of many things.

Experts say too many women with heart disease are told it's just stress.

Nina Stanley, 46, and her husband are relieved that she only needs to take three medications a day, down from 11.

She doesn't fit the stereotypical image of a heart patient, and it took years of being misdiagnosed before she finally learned she had a genetic heart defect.

"It was very difficult, still is," Stanley said.

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She had typical heart symptoms, but countless doctors said it was all in her head.

"And I actually received three prescriptions for Valium and anti-anxiety medications, and they said it's definitely not a heart issue," Stanley said. "'You're probably stressed out, you're a mom and work full time, so you should probably quit your job.'"

Instead, she got busy with research and she was eventually diagnosed with a myocardial bridge that was restricting blood flow to her heart.

"That was the most frustrating part of my journey, was not being heard or taken seriously," Stanley said. "If I didn't advocate for myself, I may be dead."

She ended up having open heart surgery a little more than a year ago.

"A very emotional journey, not knowing if i was going to be able to be a mom to my children for the rest of their lives and what would it be like without me," Stanley said.

Now, with a retooled heart, she has a very symbolic painting in her Philadelphia living room.

"I'm not really a heart person, but ever since I had heart surgery, everybody wants to give me heart things," she said.

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And Stanley is now working with the Heart Association to let everyone know that heart disease can happen to anyone.

"Because I look fit,  because I'm young, because I look healthy, nobody thought it would be in the realm of possibility that it was my heart," she said.

Stanley is encouraging women to make sure they know the symptoms of heart disease, even something like jaw or back pain.

And don't wait to see a doctor or be put off, like Stanley said, you have to be your own advocate.

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