Heather H. moved to Colorado 16 years ago to enjoy the great outdoors, reveling in the freedom that came with hiking, biking and especially snowboarding down those winding, wintery mountain trails, loving life with such a youthful exuberance.
She’s not done yet.
Malignant peritoneal mesothelioma may have floored her temporarily, but that lifestyle she once lived has provided the motivation to fight back, believing she can beat the long odds and fly
through the snow once again.
It’s a rare cancer with no cure and few proven treatment options, but she is an even rarer patient – young, vibrant and confident – with a lot more living to do.
“I’m determined to get back where I was, to get up on that board again,” Heather told Asbestos.com from her Colorado home, almost four months after her last surgery. Her last name is being withheld over privacy concerns.
“At least one more good run down the mountain, that’s my goal, to get my mind and body built back up to where it needs to be. I know I can do it again. I’m not willing to give it up yet. I can’t use the word ‘can’t.’ ”
Heather, 40, has embarked on an ambitious and aggressive rehabilitation campaign, built around both conventional and integrative medicine, along with a wide-reaching support system that starts with her husband, Curt, and their 7-year-old daughter, Stori.
She is working with an oncologist, chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist and nutritionist. They all help fuel her belief that the mind, body and soul must be in unison to effectively fight this cancer.
The process includes health and wellness classes, meditation, yoga and Jin Shin Jyutsu, the ancient oriental art of harmonizing life energy within the body. Her diet now is strict and organic, based around essential oils produced by doTERRA, a company that markets health products in the U.S. The essential oils are taken topically, aromatically and ingested.
“I needed the chemotherapy to do what it does. It kept me alive,” she said. “But these other components, the integrative medicine parts, have helped me thrive today. I think your mental state is enormous in this fight. You can allow yourself to go to dark places, but you can’t stay there. You can get emotional [about the disease], but you have to move on from it.”
Heather was living the good life not long ago and not far from Denver, happily mixing her young family and love of the outdoors. She and Curt originally had met on the slopes. Their daughter added to their idyllic lifestyle. She worked one day a week at a ski resort, allowing the family full use of the mountain. She also worked at a preschool where her daughter attended.
Life was good until things started going really bad inside her. For almost two years, she knew something was wrong – abdominal pains, excess fluid and unexplained weight gains – but doctors never could pinpoint the ailment. X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, myriad blood tests, and endless poking and prodding failed to diagnose the problem accurately.
Surgery for what they believed was ovarian cancer in February turned into a shocking diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma, which already had spread throughout her abdomen. The diagnosis began her search for the best specialist she could find.
She originally dismissed the prospect of life-changing surgery, instead taking a vacation to Florida, where she, Curt and Stori sat on a white-sandy beach and hugged each other, contemplating the future.
“I just had to wrap my mind around the whole thing. I remember watching the two of them play in the water, the sun was going down, then telling myself, ‘I don’t want to die yet. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to do the surgery and come out of it stronger,’ ” she remembered. “I want to be around to drive my daughter to school.”
Two days later, she and Curt flew to Pittsburgh, where they met with surgeon James Pingpank, Jr., the renowned peritoneal specialist at the UPMC Cancer. The cytoreductive surgery and Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC) procedure lasted almost 12 hours. It removed as much of the cancerous growth as possible, then washed the stomach cavity with a heated, chemotherapy solution.
After three weeks in the hospital there, she was driven to nearby Youngstown, Ohio. It’s where she grew up. Her parents still live there. It’s likely that as a child in Youngstown she was exposed to the asbestos fibers that later caused the mesothelioma.
Many of her family members had worked in the steel mills, a mainstay for the asbestos industry. Her father worked at General Fireproofing, where they made fireproof safes, steel furniture and aircraft parts. He came home with his fireproof jacket every day covered with asbestos. She often played in it. No one had any idea how toxic it was.
Her post-surgery period was difficult. She developed pneumonia and spent another week in a Youngstown hospital. They drove back to Pittsburgh for some complex, follow-up surgery.
She finally returned home to Colorado in mid-August, discovering just how many friends she had, from her early years in Youngstown to her later years in Colorado. There were fundraisers to help with expenses, gatherings to help with anything she needed. She has been showered in cards and well-wishes ever since.
An aunt drives two hours each week just to take her to Jin Shin Jyutsu class. She has friends who run errands for her, and help with Stori.
“The unbelievable support has helped me through so many dark days. I’ve literally gotten at least a card in the mail every day since my diagnosis. People from church, people from work, people I’ve never met, people from other countries,” she said. “This whole experience has made me realize the power of friendships. I’d never say I’m thankful for having to go through this, but in some ways, it’s been a positive experience.”
Her future now is cloudy, but she sees only the sunshine. They call her “Hugging Heather” for a reason. She likes people there, even when she isn’t feeling well. Even on her down days – and there are many – she likes friends in the house. She sleeps better with chatter all around. She likes hugging friends and being hugged.
Her latest CT scan taken just before Thanksgivings showed no evidence of disease and no sign of cancer progression, which left her elated.
“I’m going to get through this. I am,” she said. “I’m not going to let the people down who have supported me through it all. They were devastated when I told them what I had. And if I can help anyone else through this, just let me know. I’m going to ride that board again.”