March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month – This is the personal journey of one warrior.
A warrior is not determined by how fast or strong they are, since those can be developed over time. A true warrior chooses to stand between the enemy and those that are held dear to their hearts. The enemy can come in all forms and sizes and can take over your life as you know it. When facing the enemy, you have choices to make that will determine the path that will be followed. These choices will not only define who you are, but what you will live for. In this case, the enemy is Colon Cancer.
When I first realized that March was Colon Cancer Awareness Month, I immediately knew that I was going to share Heather’s story. I wanted to share with everyone what an amazing person she is. My hope is that her story would inspire others who might be in a similar situation. She has already become an inspiration to many while having to juggle not only a very intense treatment regime but also being the best wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend that she can be.
Her journey began several years ago with a misdiagnosis. During this time, she gave birth to her second daughter. With the overwhelming feeling of transitioning from one child to now two, she put herself on the back burner. This is what we moms do; we devote ourselves to our children and family that no thought is given to our own health and welfare. When she did take notice to her own needs, the fight began. She had to fight for a correct diagnosis. In November 2010, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. It was then that she decided to declare an all out war on her cancer.
There have been a few battles that have been lost but many more that have been won. She has had to endure chemo, surgeries, tests, x-rays, and blood draws over and over again. She has had to travel to and from various hospitals near and far for treatment; all the while fighting nausea, fatigue, worry, and uncertainty. But through it all, she has remained positive and upbeat along with being a support system for others.
She is a wealth of knowledge for others of this disease, a fighter for raising money and awareness, and an advocate for moms to take care of themselves. She is not shy and leaves little privacy to herself with spreading awareness and sharing her fight through an online journal and Facebook. She celebrates her life by “living, surviving, and thriving.” She draws her own inspiration from the music and chooses one each day as her theme song.
As an avid Ravens fan, she has drawn strength and inspiration from the team and players themselves. Mostly, she has found inspiration in Ray Lewis’s meaningful speeches. He even personalized her chemo bag with “To Heather the warrior.” She strives to live each day to the fullest and to never stop fighting. With an amazing spirit and a never say die attitude, she will not be defeated.
I recently asked Heather if she would be willing to answer a few questions for me and she was kind enough to agree. With her busy schedule and limited time, I thought it would be best to just send her the questions, that way she could answer them at her convenience with no pressures. If you know Heather, you know that she does not do anything smaller nor does she do it brief but we wouldn’t have her any other way.
ME: I have had the honor of following along and being a part of your fight again Colon Cancer. It has been a long road for you. Will you please share with us a summary of how and when you were diagnosed?
HEATHER: Sometime around April 2009, I noticed that I had blood in my stool. I did a little looking online and went to see a gastroenterologist as what I had read about that as a symptom concerned me. I went to see this doctor convinced that I had cancer. Without any blood work, colonoscopy and a very limited history taken from me, he assured me that I was too young to have colon cancer and dismissed my complaints as being due to a bacterial infection and gave me some medicine that I could take. My symptoms changed slightly, but almost immediately thereafter I became pregnant with my second child. I let my obstetrician know of my continuing problems and she assured me that the problems were secondary to hemorrhoids that had occurred during my pregnancy with my first child. I repeatedly reported my complaints through the pregnancy and was repeatedly dismissed. After my second child was born in February 2010, my symptoms did not resolve but I was overwhelmed by the transition from parenting one child to parenting two. I had also grown so accustomed to being dismissed by my providers that it was easy to backburner “me”. By October 2010, my symptoms completely changed. I returned to the gastroenterologist who had previously seen me and was again dismissed. I would not be turned away this time and pressed him to do some blood work and schedule a colonoscopy. It is strange how these things go, but I will always remember listening to him dictate a note that day. He said something to the effect of, “I have assured the patient that nothing lethal is going on. At her request, we will schedule her for a colonoscopy.”
On November 30, 2010, this same physician performed my colonoscopy. During the procedure he found an almost circumferential tumor in the rectum. My life was forever changed on that day. I will never forget waking up in the recovery room to see my husband’s eyes red with tears. I will never forget sitting in the parking lot with my husband at the diner we drove to afterwards trying to figure out a way to call my mother on that day, her birthday, to tell her that I had been diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget coming home and holding my 8 month old baby girl and my two year old daughter and wondering how I would be strong enough for all of us. On that day, my world shattered. On that day, I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic colorectal cancer.
ME: You are a true warrior and continue to be. Who is your inspiration to take on your diagnosis head on and continuously “kick butt and take names?”
HEATHER: My family is my world. They inspire me. All of my life I have wanted to be a Mom. My husband and I took our time getting married. Nine years. I am an incredibly patient warrior. After we finally married, I went through a year of fertility treatment before I was able to get pregnant with our first daughter. That I was able to naturally conceive our second daughter in the midst of my misdiagnosis was its own miracle. All the same, I remember in the days shortly after my diagnosis standing in the shower and feeling an immense wave of strength move through me. Everything in my being said, “NO!” In that moment, I felt such a sense of empowerment and in my head I heard, “You are a WARRIOR! Get up and fight!” God did not put me on this earth and give me the gifts of these beautiful girls to rip me from their lives. I would not surrender to this disease. I have a husband and two beautiful girls and nothing will separate me from them. Nothing.
As a mother, I am not afforded the luxury of fear. I don’t get to be afraid of the dark, I don’t get to be afraid of bad guys, and frankly, I don’t get to be afraid of cancer. My kids need me now. I sharpen my sword, I carry my shield and I get up and I fight. Some days that means going to chemotherapy. Other days it means figuring out how to get the girls to gymnastics, preschool, make dinner, and still find some time to go to the gym. We talk about my disease as we need to. I have told my girls that sometimes in our lives we have to fight very very hard to hold onto the things that matter in our lives. I have told them that being brave is important. Warriors must be brave.
This year, the preschool class did a unit on Native Americans. The kids had a special day for their class as well as the other 4-year old preschool classes at the school where they had a presentation on Native Americans. In the middle of the presentation, my daughter stopped the entire group and told them, “My Mama is a warrior!”
And so, what choice do I have? I AM a warrior. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. They inspire me every single day. I will win because of them. I am strong because of them.
ME: Ray Lewis signed your Chemo bag “To Heather the warrior.” What has that meant to you and how has it helped you?
HEATHER: I don’t think anybody can really prepare you for what chemotherapy will really be like. Each regimen is different, and even with respect to each regimen, each person handles it differently. I can tell you what chemotherapy is like for me, but that was not always true. Within 15 days of being diagnosed, I went for my first chemotherapy infusion. I could not sleep the night before and as my husband, mother and I made the drive to Johns Hopkins from my house in Fallston that day, we listened to different songs on my ipod. From that ride, I created a playlist of warrior songs that would be part of my ride to treatment for many months to come.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Johns Hopkins, it might sound silly, but I felt the way I do before a Ravens home game. My husband and I have been season ticket owners for over 10 years and there are few things more exciting than waiting for the home team to take the field. This was different though, this time I was the one about to take the field. I was the one about to step into the ring with cancer. I was the one in the tunnel. I was the one who was about to be shot up with poison. I could hear the music in my head that normally plays as the Ravens prepare to take the field and all I could see in my mind was Ray Lewis. I wasn’t about to do the Squirrel dance as I walked into the infusion area, but I made up my mind that day that when this fight is over, I’ll be doing the Squirrel dance as I make that last trip on the way out of the cancer center.
As my infusions continued, what I call my “pre-game” continued. For each treatment, I try to have a “theme” song and post it to my Facebook page. I scan youtube for interviews with Ray as I find his spirit and strength inspiring. Ray Lewis Remix by DJ Steve Porter is my favorite. I know that this clip is about football, but for me it is about more than that. “Football is about getting hit! That’s it!…This is what it feels like!!” I don’t know. Something in it resonates with me and makes me think that there are parallels for me between what it is like to step out onto the football field and what it is like for me to step into the ring for my fight.
Anyway, somewhere in all of that, I had thrown the idea out to Facebook that maybe I should try to get Ray to sign my chemo bag. Lot of people have signed jerseys and footballs and helmets, but I don’t know a lot of people who have chemo bags. I liked the idea of bringing some of his vigor and relentless spirit with me into the ring for my fight. Through some kindness and some connections, I was able to get my bag signed. I have worn it through countless infusions. The #52 and his inscription that appear on my bag is fading from wear, but even if it completely disappears from site, I know that part of that magic that is Ray comes with me into those infusions. Part of that magic that is Ray is now a part of me. I am not a football player. I might only be a hero to two little girls. That’s okay. This is what it feels like…
There are still battles that need to be fought and some she will lose but many that she will continue to win. It’s been said that God only gives us as much as we can handle and if that is true then God must think that she is a bad-ass.