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. I figured it was probably just a benign cyst," 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, the 2017 honorary chairwoman of Steppin' Out in Pink. "It's a detour in life that no one expects."
While some parts of life were put on hold, like graduate school, Heather and her husband, Galen Papaconstantinou, kept their focus on the future during treatments and recently 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 got, but you get through this."
Some days, the diagnosis still doesn't seem possible. "When I see my name on the pill bottle with 'take as needed after chemotherapy,' I think, 'Me? Going through chemo? What?'"
"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 has helped her through six grueling rounds of chemotherapy and a mastectomy. Next, she will take on six and a half weeks of daily radiation therapy treatments.
"As overwhelmingly negative as cancer is, the support that I have gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. Family, friends and especially coworkers, that I never would have expected, have sent cards and emails, and stopped by for a quick hello. That has been so special. That's what gives me extra strength to carry on—knowing that there's so much support from unexpected places.
"My cancer care team has been amazing, as well. 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."
While Heather is still in "fight mode" and says it's overwhelming to think too far ahead, she often finds herself reflecting on what it will mean to live as a survivor. "I think about how my life after this will be worthy of this second chance I've been given after this year-long fight.
"In the thick of my cancer journey, I feel honored to represent our community as the honorary chairwoman of Steppin' Out in Pink," she says.
Whether young or old, family history or not, remember one thing—cancer does not discriminate.
Save the date
Steppin' Out in Pink is Saturday, Sept. 9
Join Heather and the thousands of Steppin' Out in Pink supporters at the 12th annual event on Saturday, Sept. 9. Since its inception in 2006, the event has brought in nearly $4.1 million to fund breast cancer research initiatives at Gundersen Medical Foundation, and support local victims and survivors. Registration opens May 1 at steppinoutinpink.org.
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