In April of 2008, my family got the kind of news that makes you feel like you've been punched in the gut. At the age of 28, my little sister Heather, the baby of the family, was diagnosed with Anaplastic Astrocytoma, stage three brain cancer. Because the tentacle-like cells of an astrocytoma grow into the surrounding brain tissue, which control vital functions like motor skills, memory and speech, these tumors cannot be totally removed. "Clean margins" are not an option, and we knew Heather would never be cancer free.
With aggressive treatment, the average life expectancy with this diagnosis is about two years. Eventually, this type of tumor grows again. But while we knew the statistics, and had done enough research to never get too cocky, somehow, Heather seemed to prove all her doctors and the data wrong. She wasn't just beating the odds, she was kicking their ass.
In part, this might be credited to Heather's approach to her disease. Her attitude has always been, "Don't worry, I got this."
In fact, she's been almost competitive with her diagnosis. During her chemotherapy, she learned she had a 20 percent chance of surviving five years. I could almost see her doing the math. She slowly looked around the room and thought to herself: "Ok, that means I gotta outlast four of these poor bastards."
Two months after Heather's first brain surgery, my devastated parents morphed into what I can only describe as activists. They had their brief moment of being mad at God and wanting to know "Why us?" But that quickly turned into "Screw this" and they got busy. Those two were so outraged and determined that, in a way, I kind of felt sorry for brain cancer.
Part of their strategy involved creating a foundation to raise money for brain cancer research and education. Leap For A Cure (www.leapforacure.org), is named so because Heather's moniker has always been "Frog." My parents created fundraisers, got in front of the local media, and brought in experts from around the country offering free educational seminars on brain cancer. So far they've raised over half a million dollars for a cancer center in Omaha, where Heather and my parents live.
When the local newspaper did a story about Leap For A Cure, Heather was quoted as saying, "If someone had to get brain cancer, I'm glad it was me. Because I have the strength and family support to get through this and there are people who aren't as lucky."
In the last six years, she has never once felt sorry for herself. Her positive attitude inspires and amazes me. Her wardrobe often complements her outlook. She's usually wearing a T-shirt that says something like: "Eff brain cancer." When her former fiancée decided he couldn't deal with her diagnosis and left her, she found a way to spin it that made us all laugh. She pawned her engagement ring to buy a Ms. Pacman arcade game. Justifying the purchase as physical therapy, because the two previous brain surgeries have made her left side difficult for her to use. Every few months when she has an MRI scan, my parents are sick with concern the days leading up to it. She has always calmed them down and instructed them not to worry, she'll be fine.
And it's always been true. Until last week, when it wasn't.
After nearly six years of stable MRI scans, last Wednesday we got the news the tumor had grown. Worse, it's not operable this time. True to her character, Heather chose to share this news via Facebook with the following post:
"Not exactly the news I wanted to hear, but it happens. My brain tumor grew. It's okay I beat this bitch before and I will do it again!"
I sometimes get the impression if her doctor told her she was going to die tomorrow, her response would be, "Ah. Just a minor setback!"
But while Heather remains optimistic, there's a reality that comes with this news that leaves my family, once again, feeling like we've been punched in the gut. We're still dazed and trying to catch our breath. And in the meantime, we look to the one person who has the most right to be angry and scared, to console us.
Amy Roberts is a longtime Park City resident, freelance writer and the proud owner of two ill-behaved rescue dogs, Boston and Stanley.