New beginning for cancer survivor

Hannah Baker

Kelsey Heer woke from sleep one night to a shaking reality. Her short brown hair was beginning to fall out and lay limply on the pillow beside her.

She had just begun chemotherapy and the side effects were quickly taking over. She hurried out of bed to rid the evidence before her mother saw – she didn’t want to see her get upset.

She was only 16.

According to the American Cancer Society, there were 1,529,560 cancer cases diagnosed in the United States last year alone. Statistically, one in four of those cases will end in death. Luckily for Heer, an SDSU student majoring in human development, she is not a part of this statistic.

This is her story.

Too young

Heer was in high school when she went to the hospital for a cat scan. She had been having back pain that felt like a bone was displaced near her tailbone, so she decided to go to a doctor with her mother to have it looked at. However, it was not a displaced bone, it was a tumor the size of a softball growing near the back of her pelvis.

The news she heard next would change her life. She was diagnosed with stage four alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare muscle cancer typically found in young children.

“I didn’t burst into tears,” Heer said. “And my mom was more emotional than I was. It didn’t hit me at the same time it did her.”

“It was definitely a shocker and everyone thinks you’ll have a big emotional breakdown, but that didn’t happen for me right away. I don’t really know why.”

From there, she left her hometown of Doland, S.D., for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for treatment. Because her cancer was so rare, she needed chemotherapy using drugs from a new clinical study.

“It made me nervous because the drugs were new, so there wasn’t a guarantee,” Heer said. “My family and I just hoped they would work.”

Chemotherapy takes effect

The drugs made her tired and weak, disabling her hands and preventing her from walking normally. She would often trip over her own feet.

Heer remembers one day falling five to 10 times, and on the last fall, she had no motivation to get up. She said she felt defeated.

“I just sat there on the floor and cried. My mom was with me and after every fall she’d help me up but I didn’t want to that time – I couldn’t. So instead she sat on the floor against the wall and just cried with me,” she said. “We reached a hard level of understanding with each other that day. It brought us closer.”

ing, said Heer. She said she had always had long, curly blonde hair, so to help make light of the situation, her older sister and her decided she should chop it short and dye it brown before she lost it.

“To every 16-year-old girl, hair is a big deal,” said Heer. “My mom never let me do anything drastic to my hair so since it was going to come out anyway, we thought we would go crazy.”

Her new haircut didn’t last long, said Heer. After just a few weeks of chemotherapy, her hair began to fall out.

“Watching my hair get thinner and thinner and have my family pick hair off me that had fallen onto my shoulders was awful,” Heer said. “It fell out really fast.”

After spending some time at Mayo, she was able to receive treatment at Sanford Heath in Sioux Falls because it was doing the same clinical study. This allowed her to be closer to home and closer to loved ones.

“I’m a firm believer that having the people around you who you love helps you get better that much faster. There was always someone with me at Mayo, but being home felt so good,” she said.

Heer said when she returned home she felt disconnected from her friends at school. She felt isolated and “out of the loop.” Also, because she was often sick, she was unable to do things with her friends.

“I didn’t want to be the girl who had to go to school with a bandana or hat because I hated it when people stared,” she said. “I went to a small school so everyone knows everyone and everyone is good friends, so when people would be talking about stuff that happened while I was away, I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. It was really hard.”

After a grueling 18 months, Heer finished chemotherapy and radiation the day before her birthday on Jan. 14, 2007. Doctors said had Heer waited just another week to come in, the cancer might have taken off to the point where medicine may not have helped.

“To think I was so close to maybe not being here anymore is just a crazy, and at the same time, scary thought,” Heer said. “It was an awesome birthday present to say the least.”

Although she made it through chemotherapy, she was not completely freed. Doctors told her the type of cancer she endured had a high likelihood of coming back later in life in a different form and location. She would need checkups every few months.

A college life

Despite spending the majority of high school doing chemotherapy, Heer said that did not discourage her from wanting to pursue college. She had always known she wanted to attend SDSU.

“My parents asked me if I wanted to take a year off but I didn’t want to. College seemed like a place for a new beginning – a fresh start,” she said. “I wanted to have a normal life again.”

So, still wearing a wig at the time because her hair had not fully grown back yet, Heer headed off to SDSU to start her freshman year. She said the hardest part about being a student and a prior cancer patient is missing class for checkups.

“It takes a lot of organization, and I’m about the least organized person in the world,” she said, laughing. “But I’ve made it work – I’ve had to.”

Heer said although she is a senior now and has not had another cancer scare in the last three years, she still braces herself for the worst whenever she has a checkup.

“You go in there thinking everything is fine, but the tiniest part of your mind is also saying ‘What if?’” said Heer. “When I go to checkups a little bit of me is ready for bad news so if it happens I won’t be blindsided. If it happens again, I’ll be ready.”

Heer said her experience has given her a new perspective on life and the desire to stay more involved at SDSU, including giving back to others. Along with regular classes, she works two jobs and is also on the University Program Council executive board for the annual State-A-Thon. This event takes place at SDSU this school year on March 24.

“My experience has made me a more appreciative person, which is something I noticed that changed right away during my cancer,” said Heer. “Knowing I have a second chance that some people don’t always get makes me appreciate little everyday things more. I want to have the time of my life.”