AIM This paper is a report of a study of women's experiences of coronary artery bypass graft surgery. BACKGROUND Worldwide, coronary heart disease is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality. It has traditionally been viewed as primarily affecting men. However, a growing body of literature exploring gender differences in this area is challenging accepted beliefs, particularly in relation to outcomes. Despite this, awareness of how women interpret and respond to the experiences of cardiac surgery remains limited. METHODS At regional cardiothoracic centres in England and Wales, during 2003 to 2006, data were collected from 30 women preoperatively and at 6 weeks and 6 months postoperatively using semi-structured interviews. A constructivist grounded theory approach was adopted and data were analysed using extensive coding and constant comparison techniques. RESULTS A substantive theory of the public-private dialogue of normality emerged demonstrating that participants faced lifestyle disruptions as they attempted to privately normalize and integrates limitations, while minimizing a public display of illness. During the preoperative period, participants experienced difficulties recognizing and acting on symptoms and endured physical and emotional distress while waiting for surgery. Following surgery, women experienced functional limitations which forced them to relinquish normal activities and roles. As recovery progressed, women came to accept their changed health status and renegotiated state of normality. CONCLUSION The findings increase understanding about the adjustments which women undergoing cardiac surgery make as part of living with a long-term condition and support the need to develop innovative gender-sensitive health education and services.