When Heather was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma at age 16, her first words to her mother were “I’m sorry.” When I heard those words, I froze. Not only because it was touching and heartbreaking, which it most certainly was. It hit me because those were the exact same words my wife Mindy said to me one month before she died when her stage IV breast cancer took a turn for the worse. Those may seem like extraordinary words to hear following such a diagnosis, but then again, Heather, like Mindy and so many others, can only be described as extraordinary.
All cancer stories are different. And some, even in their darkness, can shine a light on a person’s true character. When I met Heather, I saw a vibrant, determined young woman. I did not see a former cancer patient– I saw life, I saw the future. Heather’s treatment included three different regimens of chemo, a stem cell transplant followed by 100 days of isolation, 26 sessions of radiation, a major blood clot resulting in an ICU stay, and numerous surgeries and procedures.
Despite all of this, Heather doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Instead, it’s the needs of others that always come first. At the young age of 23, she has a strong desire to help people. Her mother calls her an “advocate for those who are different.”
For those who have had cancer, the journey doesn’t end when the treatment ends– for some, the effects last a lifetime. Since being told she was cancer-free in 2015, Heather continues to experience nerve damage in her arms and legs and a decrease in cognitive abilities. Unfortunately for many, such complications are common even after being deemed “cancer-free.” While others may see these complications as an obstacle, Heather’s response is to show empathy and compassion for others. Getting to know Heather clarified something I have learned since my wife’s passing-- compassion can’t cure cancer, but it can help heal.
*Heather is currently a Development & Communications Associate at Circle of Care. She is a full-time student at the University of Bridgeport studying marketing, with aspirations of working in the healthcare industry. She celebrated her fifth year of being cancer-free last month.