June 10, 2008 was the day my life changed; everything turned upside down. I heard the words "your daughter has cancer. It's stage 4."
My daughter, Heather. Beautiful, smart, talented, kind...23 years old. She'd always dreamed of dancing. She was a fierce competitor, winning local, state and national dance competitions. She majored in dance in college and was accepted immediately into an international dance tour with Sesame Street Live when she graduated. Finishing her tour, she moved to New York City, met the love of her life and continued to pursue a career in dance.
She began to not feel well; suffering from IBS/Chrone's Disease, Heather decided to stop dancing to let her body heal and recover. She accepted a temporary job with the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (OCRF). She plunged into the job, learning and absorbing everything she could. It wasn't long before she called and said "I'm going to stay at OCRF and change the world." That was Heather...always ready to be a champion. A few short months later, June 10, 2008, she got the word of her own cancer.
Heather faced it bravely, always feeling she would win. Her dance studio at home in Syracuse threw a benefit and raised $30,000 for her medical expenses. People sent care packages and flowers and friends rallied. People from all over the country subscribed to her blog - gritty and real, describing her journey.
On November 14, 2008, 6 months after her diagnosis, Heather was called home to heaven. My heart shattered into pieces; it was more than I could grasp. Over 750 people showed up on a snowy day in Syracuse to celebrate her life. Strangers who read her blog sent cards and notes. But I was lost...angry at God...angry at the world. My nights were sleepless and tearful. I begged to wake up from this terrible dream. I wanted to curl up in a fetal position and never ever see the light of day again. But inside me, something stirred. She would expect more from me. Heather would be mad at me for this.
So, I sat down with my husband, Gary, and Heather's beloved Jesse and we talked. We had about $1,000 left from her benefit. What if we could do something that would be important to Heather with that money? Should we donate it to OCRF? What to do? We decided to start "Hope for Heather" - a non profit to raise money for ovarian cancer. If it was a cause that was so important to her to change careers, it would be our cause. So, in March of 2009, Hope for Heather became incorporated to raise funds for ovarian cancer research, to educate locally and create awareness and to help patients. We had absolutely no idea of where this journey was going to take us.
8 years later...our journey has brought us into the path of amazing women. Women who face battles with cancer that the strongest of warriors would run from. Women with courage and grace and faith. With $1,000 as start up, we held small events like karaoke contests, a walk, a music party with bands, anywhere we could go. We really had no idea what we were doing or how we were going to get anything done, but determined to learn. We joined the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance as a partner member and started going to conferences and connecting and meeting other organizations. We began learning how to be more effective. We began to grow.
Our growth became almost like "guerrilla marketing" - soliciting civic groups, church groups, and youth groups to make teal ribbons to hand out with symptom cards. We rented a booth at the NY State Fair and sent our warriors out with baskets of symptom cards and ribbons to get the word out. We peppered sporting events with ribbons and symptom cards. We dogged the media for any attention we could get.
We were determined. This was good. Important. Heather would approve. We began to gather support and pick up steam... We rented a small office. Farah Jadran, local reporter and former editor of Syracuse Woman Magazine, became our media spokesperson. Our events began to grow. Syracuse was turning teal. But we still have far to go.
So where are we today....still growing and still learning. Still humbled to stand among the cancer warriors that we meet. We have a successful run/walk for awareness that brings about 1,000 together for the cause. Our booth at the NY State Fair hands out now over 50,000 ribbons and symptom cards. We have expanded our outreach into 3 other counties, feverishly working to save a life with information. Hope for Heather holds a support meeting each month for women cancer survivors, and has donated over $250,000 to research. We are still 3 people...still volunteer...still being inspired by Heather.
My work has led me to be an Advocate Leader with OCRF, traveling to Washington DC to advocate for federally funded ovarian cancer research. What an honor to walk through the halls of Congress and the Senate.
Some days are still difficult. Holidays, anniversaries...Heather and I share the same birthday. There are still sleepless nights. I read somewhere that the deeper the love, the deeper the grief. But I know that Heather is looking over my shoulder and nudging me to go on.
Each day is a gift. Losing my child broke my heart. But honoring her has brought me to a place I never dreamed I would be ...walking among heroes and angels.
To learn more about us...www.hopeforheather.org
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