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Our Friend Heather


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I did not know heather as well as some here Did. I do respect her for what she has done though asn I have gotten to know her. SHe did a lot for the survivors here and also advocated a lot for Lung Cancer.

SHe is a becon of light and will be missed grreatly by a large number of family and friends.

This is a brief history;

Heather was one of the first patient advocates for Lung Cancer Support Community, and provided an introduction between LCSC and LUNGevity. LCSC is now part of LUNGevity Foundation. Heather approached LUNGevity in 2004 about organizing a fundraising walk in South Jersey. At the time, we had not even considered the notion of raising money through regional events, but she was persistent. We never would have imagined that her 2004 walk, which raised $31,000 its first year, would set us on the path of establishing a strong national events program in such a short time. Heather's walk has raised in total, over the years, more than a quarter-million dollars! (For information on this year's South Jersey Walk, click here.) It is because of Heather's tireless dedication that we now have close to 40 events across the country. We will always be grateful to her.

Heather was a five-year survivor of advanced lung cancer - which is a highly uncommon scenario for lung cancer patients. Despite her treatments and personal battle with the disease, she was determined to increase awareness of lung cancer, reduce the stigma associated with the disease, and raise much-needed funds for lung cancer research, all with a smile on her face. After her initial treatment, she felt fortunate to be in remission and wanted to "carry the load" for other, less fortunate lung cancer patients, and the South Jersey Walk was born. Heather showed us all that it is possible to turn an unfortunate situation into opportunities to help others.

The following article is ONE of her achiements in the fight against Lung Cancer and was published in July 2006 readers Digest.

Why Me?Heather was only 33 and had never smoked.

How could she have lung cancer?By Lisa Collier Cool

From Reader's Digest

Heather Rudnick is determined to beat her cancer.

My mind was screaming, No! What are you doing? You need to pray that the results are nothing! You need to pray that I am fine!

Didn't Make Sense

Heather Rudnick stepped into her boss's office and shut the door. Outside, a winter chill hung over the glass towers of downtown Philadelphia. "I just got a call: My doctor wants me to come in to discuss my test results," she said, choking on the words as she started to cry. "He won't tell me on the phone." Her boss didn't ask any questions but said, "Let's go. You're too upset to drive."

As they sped to the doctor's office on that cold January day in 2003, Heather, the divorced mom of a six-year-old son, was terrified. Twelve days earlier, she'd developed heart palpitations during a treadmill workout. She blamed stress, since she'd been putting in a lot of overtime at her job as a business development coordinator at a Philadelphia law firm. After the palpitations persisted for several hours, she went to the ER, where tests showed that her heart was okay. Then a young resident pointed to a cloudy spot on her chest x-ray, in the right lung, which he thought might be pneumonia. That didn't make sense to Heather. She felt fine except for her pounding heartbeat, which returned to normal the next morning. Still, she consulted a lung specialist and had more tests, including a needle biopsy. Then she just had to wait for the results.

Now, on the way to the doctor's office, she jumped when her boss touched her arm and suggested they pray together, asking for the strength to handle the results, whatever they might be. That made Heather even more anxious. "My mind was screaming, No! What are you doing? You need to pray that the results are nothing! You need to pray that I am fine!"

She had called her boyfriend, Brad Saler, before leaving work. To her relief, he was there in the waiting room. He wrapped her in his arms to try to console her; then they went into the exam room together.

"I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience when I heard the diagnosis," says Heather. "Tears were pouring down my face. How could I have lung cancer? I was only 33, and I'd never smoked even one cigarette. The doctor had no answers, but he kept stressing that the cancer had been caught early, so surgery should take care of it. I felt trapped in the middle of a tornado, with the funnel closing in on me." She left in a daze, wondering how to break the news to her parents. She called her mom at work, and they cried together. Then it was time to pick up her son, Tyler, at school. "I must have looked like I'd been hit by a truck, and my face was swollen from crying, but he didn't notice anything wrong." Instead, the little boy was excited they were going to visit his grandparents.

Heather thought she had her emotions under control when she arrived at her parents' home in Marlton, New Jersey, the same suburb where she and Tyler lived. But when her dad gave her a wink and a sad smile, she lost it, and had to rush to another room. Her father followed her and gave her a long hug. "Dad looked into my eyes, and said I was going to get through this," she says. "I believed him."

The next few days were a blur of phone calls and medical visits. "One night, I fell into a black hole of self-pity, and said, 'Why me?' Nothing Brad said made me feel any better. He told me I'd be fine, and I screamed, 'You don't know that!' When I asked, 'What about Tyler?' he promised to take care of him. Instead of being reassured by this, I found myself yelling, 'You think I'm going to die!' I was so scared that I was beyond all comfort." And she had another fear that she was afraid to voice: "Brad and I had only been dating for eleven months. I wondered if he'd bail. I had a lot of baggage, with having a ready-made family -- and a cancer diagnosis."

But Brad was by her side on February 17, 2003, the day of her surgery. A blizzard had struck New Jersey the day before, and Heather was worried her operation would be canceled. Before dawn, Brad shoveled through four-foot snowdrifts to the car, while she called to make sure the surgeon would be there at 5:45, as scheduled. At the hospital, there was only time to say, "I love you" and "See you later" to her boyfriend and her parents before she was wheeled to the OR.

Doctors removed almost half her lung, along with surrounding lymph nodes, through an incision under her arm. After a three-day hospital stay, Heather returned to her parents' home, where she spent a month recuperating. At first, she was in such pain that all she could do was lie on the couch. "The doctor gave me a machine to blow into, and exercises so my shoulder wouldn't freeze up, but after two minutes I was in absolute agony. It even hurt to sneeze. I felt like somebody had shoved a hard shoe box where my lung was supposed to be."

By her one-month checkup, she was much better. "I told the surgeon that I'd wear my four-inch scar like a badge of honor -- even in my bikini." The doctor grinned, but the light moment didn't last. He turned somber as he explained that the lab had found cancer in five of her lymph nodes. "I felt blindsided," says Heather. "Instead of having early cancer, it was advanced. I was afraid to ask how much time I had left because I didn't want that number in my head. It would have sucked all the hope out of me."

A panel of cancer specialists reviewed her case and advised six weeks of daily radiation, plus weekly chemotherapy. They explained that because she was young, they could hit her with everything at once, to get the best shot at a cure. Heather took a deep breath, then said, "Okay, do it."

Photo by Shonna ValeskaHeather Rudnick is determined to beat her cancer.javascript:void(0);

The doctor gave me a machine to blow into, and exercises so my shoulder wouldn't freeze up, but after two minutes I was in absolute agony. It even hurt to sneeze. I felt like somebody had shoved a hard shoe box where my lung was supposed to be.

A Victorious Moment

Heather started treatment in late April 2003, and by the middle of that month she was well enough to return to work part-time at the law firm. She and Brad also went to a lung cancer support group. Heather was by far the youngest patient. She found it heartening to meet ten friendly survivors, and hear their stories of victory and determination.

Meanwhile, Brad made a decision: He was going to propose. "For a few months, I'd known in my heart that I wanted to marry Heather, but I'd thought it was too soon to ask," says the 36-year-old financial planner. "I wanted to be with her whether she had cancer or not, because I loved her." On the Friday night before her treatment was to begin, during a Scrabble game he spelled out the words "marry me" on the board, then showed her a sparkling diamond ring. Thrilled, she flung her arms in the air and, laughing and crying, said, "Yes, yes, yes!"

Her happiness helped her get through the first few days of radiation. "I was on cloud nine, showing my ring to anyone who would listen," says Heather. When she lay on a green hospital recliner for her first chemo session, and watched the drugs drip into her arm, she was filled with dread, not just of the side effects, but also the possibility that it wouldn't work. According to her doctor, James Stevenson, MD, co-director of the Comprehensive Lung Cancer Program at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey at Cooper University Hospital, "only 15 to 20 percent of people with her stage of cancer are cured, even with chemotherapy and radiation. Most don't live more than two years. But if anyone could beat those odds, it's Heather. She's young and healthy, and has every reason to be optimistic."

During the treatment, however, she got sicker and more discouraged every day. She vomited blood, developed blistering burns on her chest and back, and smelled a constant charred scent that left her too nauseated to eat. The 5' 7" mom's weight dropped from 140 pounds to 113, and her strawberry-blond curls fell out in clumps. Brad moved in to take care of her. As she got sicker, her thoughts grew increasingly gloomy. "When Brad talked about our wedding, a voice in my head asked if I'd still be around then. I had visions of Tyler sobbing because I'd died. I'd watch him as he slept, and wonder if he'd remember me."

But one night, as she sat by Tyler's bed, her sadness shifted to fierce determination. "It was as if a switch clicked on inside me," she says. "I had to make it through the treatment so I could beat this monster. My little boy needed me -- and I needed him!" She battled side effects for months, but little by little her strength returned. To track her progress, she had lung scans every three months, and was elated when test after test found no sign of cancer. On January 15, 2004, she wore a strapless ivory gown as she married Brad on a cruise ship, with Tyler as the best man.

In November 2004, however, she got terrible news: A scan showed 25 or more specks scattered through both lungs. Because the nodules were so tiny, it was impossible to biopsy them, says Dr. Stevenson. He determined it could be a microscopic spread of her cancer, or inflammation from her treatment. He advised scans every three months to see if the spots grew significantly. If so, he'd do a biopsy. And if cancer was found, the only treatment was chemotherapy. But until there was a clear diagnosis, they could only watch and wait.

Each subsequent scan showed that the specks had grown slightly, but not enough for a biopsy. Faced with constant anxiety, and no immediate medical options, Heather looked for other ways to protect her health. Since she was already slim, exercised as much as possible and avoided exposure to secondhand smoke, she only had one bad habit to kick: her terrible diet.

"I'd have a soft pretzel with mustard for breakfast, fast food burgers for lunch, and nachos glopped with cheese for dinner." In May 2005 she began a special macrobiotic diet. Dr. Stevenson okayed the plan. "Some of my patients with advanced lung cancer have tried a macrobiotic diet. For someone like Heather, it may have an impact, but there's not much research on that." She says she's never felt healthier, and on her most recent scan, the spots remain tiny, leading Dr. Stevenson to conclude that if they are cancer, it's a very slow-growing form. "There's still reason for optimism," he says.

To celebrate, in March 2006 Heather and Brad went on a seven-day cruise. Leaving winter behind, they visited Dunns River Falls in Jamaica. As rushing water splashed their legs, they began to climb the 600-foot waterfall. While many people stopped at a platform partway up, Heather pushed on, despite her radiation-damaged lungs, until she made it to the top. That victorious moment, she says, sums up her cancer journey: "It's a series of slippery rocks I've had to climb for the past three years. I don't know where I'll end up, but whatever the obstacles are, I'm determined to take that next step."

From Reader's Digest - July 2006

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