Amy Roberts: Faith over fear
June 2, 2015
When I read that the vice president’s son, Beau Biden, lost his battle with brain cancer last weekend, it knocked the wind out of me. My little sister, Heather, was diagnosed with brain cancer seven years ago when she was 28. So whenever I see a headline about brain cancer defeating someone, it rattles me. I know the odds, and they aren’t good. I don’t like being reminded of them.
Most of the time, stories about brain cancer patients contain all sorts of statistics, none of which are very encouraging. There is no cure. If you have brain cancer, you will eventually die from it. The most alarming statistic is usually the one between diagnosis and death. It’s rarely more than a couple years. The disease isn’t just cruel; it’s quick too.
When my sister was diagnosed in April of 2008, doctors told us we were looking at maybe two more years with her. We got the "get her affairs in order" speech and the brochures on grief. Remarkably, seven years and two months after her diagnosis, she’s still going strong.
Her doctors have often commented on how she continues to beat the odds. There’s a mix of delight and surprise when she celebrates another MRI scan with a stable report. Her neuro oncologist once told my family she’s never seen a patient as upbeat or as hopeful as Heather. As far as I can tell, that’s why she’s still alive.
Sometimes I wonder why my family has been blessed with all this unexpected extra time with Heather. I see so many others who have succumbed to the disease in the typical timeframe: six months to two years. How did we get so fortunate? Certainly she doesn’t have access to better doctors than the vice president’s son. She doesn’t have the money Ted Kennedy had or the following Brittany Maynard did. So why has she gotten so much more time?
The only logical reason I can come up with isn’t necessarily logical. But it’s all I’ve got. Heather’s attitude towards her disease, and all of the setbacks that have come with it, is nothing short of amazing.
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Every day she continues to inspire me. She has never once felt sorry for herself. She has never once stopped dreaming of the life she wants to live.
Heather was engaged when she was diagnosed. But it turned out he couldn’t handle the "in sickness" part of "in sickness and in health" and he bolted. A breakup like that would bring a lot of people to their knees. But Heather just wiped away her tears and insisted she was happy she found out before marriage what he really stood for.
When she first learned of her diagnosis, she set her mind to helping find a cure. She and my mom started a nonprofit for brain cancer research. So far, they’ve raised about $600,000 for the cause.
Her multiple radiation treatments have left her with a permanent bald spot on top of her head. Something most women might find horrifying. But Heather just laughs about it and says she and my dad now have matching hairlines.
Her brain surgeries have resulted in her left side being partially paralyzed. She walks with a limp and uses a cane. But this doesn’t get her down. She’ll tell you, "Hey, I always get the best parking spot!" As she waves her handicapped parking sticker.
At one point she was on a steroid treatment that made her gain 75 pounds and gave her a mustache. With no hair from her chemo treatments, a store clerk mistook her for a man, calling her "Sir." But she laughed it off and told my dad, "Hey, you always wanted a son!"
Even last year when my family was terrified because Heather’s tumors started to grow and surgery wasn’t an option, she was the one who calmed us all down. "Just a little setback," she told us. She had another round of intense radiation and a year of chemo and, so far, they’ve worked. The tumors haven’t grown again.
I can’t tell you for certain Heather’s positive attitude is the reason she’s still alive, but I know it doesn’t hurt. And it’s a constant lesson for me. Every time I feel a moment of darkness, every time something doesn’t go the way I wished or I get down on myself, I call Heather. She tells me to relax, take a deep breath and reminds me it’s all going to work out exactly the way it’s supposed to.
And then she says, "At the end of the day we always only ever have two choices: Fear or faith. Why not choose faith?"
Amy Roberts is a longtime Park City resident, freelance writer and the proud owner of two ill-behaved rescue dogs, Boston and Stanley.