Meet my friend Heather. We met back in 2008 through our mutual friend, Amber. (Amber's on the left):
The three of us spent many dark mornings running together through the streets of the small northern California town we lived in at the time. Rain or shine, we were out there, pounding the pavement. Before our kids woke up, we would slip back into our homes, shower, and be ready to conquer our days. Heather was an elementary school teacher, and she always amazed me with her dedication to getting her running in before work each day.
We were the three musketeers. The "running chicks" as we called ourselves.
Those runs were like therapy. We vented, we cried, we laughed...we bonded. There is something about running with another person that knits a tightly-wound bond that transcends "normal" friendship.
In 2010, I moved about 15 minutes away to the boondocks, and it was more difficult to run together during the weekday mornings, so I would get together with Heather and Amber on Saturday mornings to catch up and chat as we ran together. The exercise was just a welcome side effect of our fellowship.
Then, in 2011, Heather moved across the country with her family to Virginia. As excited as I was for her on her new adventure, my heart mourned knowing our weekly "catch up" runs were coming to a close. In 2014, Amber moved to Idaho. And so, the running chick era ended.
Shortly before Amber moved, I heard the devastating news that my sweet, dear Heather had been diagnosed with cancer. So many questions raced through my mind: How serious is it? Will she be ok? What is the prognosis? Should I get on a plane now? What do I say? What do I do?
And then my mind quickly switched to Heather: What would Heather want me to say, or more importantly: not say? How will her six children cope? What about her husband? Does she have friends and family surrounding her in Virginia who will help her walk through this? What is going through her mind right now? I wish I could be there to help. My heart hurt for my friend.
Since then, Heather has carried herself with dignity and grace. She has shown me what strength really is. She has inspired me and taught me to appreciate even the littlest of things. And now, I want to introduce her to you. I asked Heather some questions that I hope will help you, in some small way, understand what living with incurable cancer is like.
Heather's family: three boys, three girls. A modern-day Brady Bunch!
When were you diagnosed with cancer?
What were your symptoms...did you get checked b/c of symptoms or was it a routine check?
No symptoms. I had my annual physical and breast exam and the doctor told me everything looked fine. I had a feeling that I needed to ask for a mammogram so I did. The doctor told me it was unnecessary but gave me the order when I persisted.
What was that day like? (Was it a "normal" day before you heard? Tell us about what that day looked like for you)
I went in for a mammogram and was called the next day by the hospital and asked to return for more extensive testing. They assured me when I came in that it was nothing, that I was young, active and extremely healthy and that they were just being extra careful. They repeated the mammogram and told me everything looked fine and the area of concern was nothing more than some dense tissue. As I was leaving they decided to do an ultrasound. So I came back in and got prepped for an ultrasound. During the ultrasound the doctor flat out told me that she saw a spot that looked like a malignant tumor. They did a biopsy and it tested positive for breast cancer. I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. All I could think about was losing my hair. I started to cry in the waiting room. Everything had happened so quickly and unexpectedly that it was hard to take it all in. The next day they had me meet with an oncologist who asked me if I had pain anywhere else in my body. I didn’t but I jokingly told her that I had a little bit of lower back pain because I was on my cycle and could she do something about that? When she didn’t laugh back but instead ordered an immediate PT scan I knew this was only the beginning. I had the scan and then endured the agonizing 2 day wait for the results. The doctor called with the results while I was taking my daughter to dance. I will never forget getting the terrible news that the scan showed extensive cancerous lesions in my ribs, spine and pelvis—hence the back pain-- which I always thought was just due to less than fun monthly cycles. My new diagnosis was stage 4 incurable metastatic breast cancer with an average life span of two years. It’s impossible to describe the shock of getting news like that. I managed to cheerfully chat with my daughter the rest of the way to dance and when I dropped her off I sobbed and sobbed in the car all alone. It was one of the worst days of my life.
What has been your treatment plan?
So far I’ve been on 6 different types of oral medication, two of which are chemo (and I still have hair—one of the misconceptions about cancer is that chemo makes you lose your hair. Only certain chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss and there are dozens of different types of chemo out there depending on your condition). When my body stops responding to one drug, they put me on another. I’ve had two separate rounds of cyber knife radiation. I take several different types of vitamins. I take a medication for nerve damage and a medication for pain. I also have a monthly bone strengthening injection to try to avoid spinal fractures for as long as possible. I see a doctor at least twice a month. I have also experimented with alternative therapies such as cranial sacral therapy, massage, essential oils, and acupuncture. I believe in a combination of both though the costs are astronomical which has inhibited my ability to pursue in-depth a wide array of diverse therapies. But thankfully alternative therapies are becoming more widely accepted and used!
What type of side effects to do you have from treatment?
Mouth sores, fatigue, some hair loss, nausea, neuropathy, memory loss, hot flashes, dry skin.
Here are a few photos of what neuropathy looks like for Heather. Some neuropathy causes tingling and nerve damage and sensitivity but Heather's burns. So what looks like dry skin is actually popped blisters from the "heat."
What is the prognosis?
What has been the thing that has held you together the most, emotionally?
My faith, my family and my husband’s sense of humor.
What has been the most difficult thing to deal with while living with cancer?
Hot flashes. I know that sounds ridiculous but the hot flashes are severe. They are far worse than regular menopausal hot flashes (ask anyone who has experienced chemically induced hot flashes) and they literally make you feel like you’re going to melt. They’re so bad that people standing next to me can feel the heat radiating from my body. My face goes bright red, I sweat profusely and I feel like I’m going to faint. Fans and ice help, but only a little. The heat is coming from the inside of your body and so it’s much more difficult to cool down than if the heat was coming from outside—like the sun or a warm blanket or something like that. It’s like having a massive fever spike hit every hour of the day.
Have you faced any stereotypes that you'd like to share?
Sometimes people hear the word cancer and tend to put all people with cancer into the same category. There are dozens of different types of cancers and dozens of different treatment options. On top of that everybody responds differently to the disease and the treatment. What might work for one person is completely ineffective for another.
How are your kids dealing with your diagnosis and treatment?
I once told a friend who asked the same question that one of my kids was angry, one was in denial and one cried all the time. She was a nurse and said that those are the three stages of grief. That was their initial reaction but they have all since come to terms with it and just take it a day at a time as do I.
What is something you have learned about yourself while battling cancer?
I’ve learned to appreciate the amazing creation that a body is and I’m so grateful for mine. Most people feel thankful when they have great health but I have come to feel so much gratitude through illness. I have a body that is fighting hard against a debilitating disease. A body that recovers and adjusts to round after round after round of treatment, pain and procedures. When I see people down on themselves for their weight or their looks or a perceived imperfection I wish they would take a step back and realize that their bodies are beautiful, invaluable and a precious gift that should be loved and treasured.
Things that have not been helpful during cancer:
I give the following recognizing fully that I’ve said things to people that were unintentionally insensitive. As a result I don’t take offense when people say things that hurt me or that make things worse. I’m listing the following speaking only from my perspective.
- People that approach me and cry and cry. It wears me out and leaves me feeling dismal.
- People who ask how much time I have left.
- People who proudly announce that they insisted on a mammogram from their doctors so they didn’t end up like me.
- People who give their children weird information about me or about cancer. If your child isn’t old enough to understand a terminal illness or how to respond to someone who is ill I don’t think it’s necessary to tell them. I had a child the other day say they didn’t want to sit by me because they didn’t want to “catch” my disease and die.
Things that have helped:
- Friends that have dropped off little healthy snacks as a way to let me know they’re thinking about me and are more interested in me than my information.
- Friends that sense I’m having a bad day and send or drop off slippers or a blanket or a funny card instead of pumping me for details about my illness.
- One friend called at the onset of my diagnosis and said, “I’m here if you want to talk about cancer and I’m here if you don’t want to talk about cancer.” That meant a lot.
- Friends that still treat me the same way they always did but when necessary modify activities without any fanfare so I can still be involved.
- Friends that email or call with a recommendation for a new therapy, a great doctor, a fantastic recipe or something that they’ve personally used and think might be helpful. It’s great to get tried and true info.
- Friends that reach out now and then just to connect and remind me that they’re thinking of me. A simple text, a brief email or even a letter in the mail.
- Friends that go the extra mile to help me feel loved. One friend sent me a box of fun books, treats and toys wrapped in blue wrapping paper to be opened on days when I felt “blue”. It made me feel so cared about.
- Friends that share their own heartaches with me. I don’t like to be the center of attention and it has been helpful to remember that everyone has a hard road. It feels good to comfort and give love not just to receive it.
Heather is still living life. She's still a mom and a wife. She's still a daughter, sister and a friend. She is still wearing all the hats she wore before, it's just that now, she's living with an additional hat: cancer fighter.
And that is my friend Heather. She's amazing, resilient, capable, full of class, and an inspiration to everyone she comes in contact with. She is a warrior. A mighty princess. And I am so proud to call her my friend.
Heather is a perfectly gentle reminder to never judge someone by just what you see. Because what you see doesn't tell the whole story. Would you ever guess this beautiful woman is fighting to survive each day? Most likely not.
Every person has a story: The woman in front of you at the grocery store. The man behind you at the gas station. The person who cut you off on the freeway. The cashier helping you at Walmart. When you find yourself ready to react after an interaction with someone, remember: they have a story, too. And it could be something you can't even imagine.
Are you fighting cancer? What advice would you offer to those around you?
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This article was written by Shanti Landon, a certified life coach and the creator of the popular food + lifestyle blog of Life Made Full. She is mom to five kids and the author of two ebooks: 30 Days to a Life Made Full and 10 Minute Prep Freezer Meals. Shanti started her blog in 2012 after her husband, Chris, was diagnosed with celiac disease, and their family switched to a mostly Paleo diet. Shanti loves running, coffee, pretty much anything chocolate, and watching funny dog videos on Facebook. Oh, and she lets her dog get away with more than she allows her kids. You can catch up with her (and keep tabs on her freakin’ adorable Labradoodle puppy Huck) on Instagram,Twitter, Faceboo