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Heather Willis

A detour in life no one expects

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. It's a statistic that caught the eye of Heather Willis at Steppin' Out in Pink in 2016.

"This statistic was the first sign along the walking trail. When I saw it, I started counting my close relatives—not a one with breast cancer. I thought of my eight closest girlfriends—nobody. I thought of my co-workers over the years—no one. And then I thought how lucky that the statistic didn't ring true in my life," recalls Heather.

Ironically, two days later, she felt a lump in her breast and noticed discharge on her bra (pink polka dot, to be exact!). She wasted no time in scheduling an appointment with her primary care doctor but wasn't overly concerned.

"I'm young and healthy. I figured it was probably just some strange infection," says Heather, who was 31 years old at the time.

But, the next three weeks were anything but typical. Heather was called back for test after test—ultrasounds, mammograms, MRIs and two breast biopsies. Each result came back looking a little more concerning, a bit more suspicious. On Oct. 7, 2016, her world came to a screeching halt when she heard the words: stage 2 breast cancer, HER2 positive, grade 3 tumor.

"I would never have guessed I'd be in the middle of a battle for my life at age 32," says Heather. "It's a detour in life that no one expects."

While some parts of life where put on hold, like graduate school, Heather and her husband Galen Papaconstantinou kept their focus on the future during treatments and became homeowners in the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood. "It helped to focus on something past the treatments and surgery. You get through this, it's not easy and it takes everything you've got, but you get through this."

Some days, the diagnosis didn't seem possible. "When I saw my name on the pill bottle with 'Take as needed after chemotherapy,' I thought, 'Me? Going through chemo? What?'"

Heather Willis

Breast cancer survivor Heather Willis is the program coordinator for Global Partners at Gundersen Health System and was the 2017 honorary chairwoman at Steppin’ Out in Pink.

"The amount of support I had from family, friends, co-workers and other survivors was overwhelming and often came from unexpected places. It gave me the extra strength I needed to carry on."

"My cancer care team has been amazing, as well," adds Heather. "It's a shame you have to go through this to meet them, because Gundersen has some of the world's most wonderful people in the Cancer Center.

"Had I known that so many young women are diagnosed and that it's actually common not to have a family history of breast cancer, I would have done more monthly self-breast exams and realized it can happen to anyone. I would have finished my master's thesis early, too," she smiles.

Heather's positive attitude helped her through six grueling rounds of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and six and a half weeks of daily radiation therapy treatments.

"As overwhelmingly negative as cancer is, there is actually a lot of good that comes out of the experience, which I would have never believed at the beginning. Amazing opportunities have been opened to me, and I continue to be inspired by survivors I meet as I learn to navigate life as a survivor. I also love that I can be a part of the fight and support for others, who for now, will also have to go through this detour."

Whether young or old, family history or not, remember one thing—cancer does not discriminate.

Love + Medicine

Every day, Gundersen Health System staff deliver great medicine plus a little something extra—we call it Love + Medicine.

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