One student hopes to use her heroic journey to inspire during Radiothon

Marleen Rodriguez

Marleen Rodriguez

At 19 years of age, Kelsey Heer is cancerfree and enjoying every minute of life, but she can still vividly recall her painful journey from the initial moment she was diagnosed with cancer.

“I was surprised; I didn’t know how to react,” said Heer, a freshman human development major. “I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, but I didn’t want anyone to know.”

Heer, who fought Stage IV Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, a common soft tissue childhood cancer found in her pelvis, will share her story during the second annual Cure Kids Cancer Radiothon. Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls is hosting the program to raise funds for children battling the disease.

The hospital has joined forces with Results Radio for the event, which is set to take place March 25 to 27. Stations joining the cause include MIX 97.3, KIKN Country 100.5 and B102.7 and will feature the journeys of local survivors from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.

Heer received her shocking diagnosis during November of 2006 when she was a 16-year-old junior attending Dolan High School in Dolan, S.D. Aside from maintaining an impressive academic record, Heer was a tri-athlete involved in softball, basketball and volleyball.

Immediately following the diagnosis, Heer began 18 weeks of chemotherapy and roughly five weeks of radiation.

“It was a seven-hour drive to the clinic. It was hard to keep up with schoolwork since I had missed so much,” said Heer, who underwent treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Treatment quickly took a toll on Heer’s once athletic body, plummeting her weight to a frail 98 pounds.

“If anyone touched me, I bruised. I was incredibly pissed off I had lost all my muscle because I was particular about being in shape,” said Heer.

Driven by athletic achievements, Heer found herself struggling to learn how to walk again.

“Once, I tripped 10 times a day. Someone had to go with me everywhere to pick me up in case I fell,” Heer said. “One day I fell in the hospital, and I sat on the floor and cried for 10 minutes. I just wanted to be done.”

Despite her physical vulnerability, Heer did not succumb to her advanced cancer and instead found an immense support network in those who surrounded her.

“During my stay at the hospital, I was never alone once. I don’t know what I would’ve done without someone in the hospital every night.”

In addition to her family’s loving support and regular visits, Heer received gifts and donations from friends and strangers who had learned of her disease. Another factor during recovery was the emotional and moral support Camp Bring It On – a Canadian-based camp for cancer patients that provides children with an environment of normalcy – provided.

After surviving painful months of therapy, hair loss and being confined to a wheelchair, Heer was officially declared cancer-free on January 14, 2008, one day before her 18th birthday. During the summer of 2008, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Heer’s wish of taking a Caribbean cruise, an experience that she recalls as the most amazing time of her life.

Heer’s journey has renewed her sense of purpose in life. As a human development major at SDSU, she actively volunteers for the Children’s Miracle Network and intends to return to Camp Bring It On this summer as a morale leader. This February, she participated in the State-A-Thon, which donates all proceeds to the new Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls.

Although the disease is in remission, Heer’s check-ups are still a pivotal part of recovering from cancer. She now takes life more seriously and looks up to the younger children who have also had to endure the painful process.

“It makes you wonder if they understand how serious it is and how strong they have to be,” Heer said.

As a sign of empowerment, she recently got a tattoo with the saying, “What doesn’t destroy me only makes me stronger.”

Heer will be actively participating during this weekend’s Radiothon, answering questions about coping, retelling her experience and even DJing. Last year’s Radiothon, in which Heer also participated, raised $150,000. All proceeds will entirely benefit Sanford Children’s pediatric cancer patients. Camp Bring It On will also benefit from the event.

#1.881767:3007220895.jpg:Cancer.CMYK.MR.jpg::Marleen Rodriguez