Heather Saler passed away on May 9, 2008, at the age of 38. She was a passionate and dedicated advocate for all those impacted by this disease. What follows is an account of how she found dedication and resolve and became a lung cancer advocate.
An Unexpected Journey
by Heather Saler
What had started out as a normal day ended up anything but. My grandmother had just passed away, I was a single mom and my 6- year-old son was away on vacation with his father. I was feeling stressed. While doing my daily treadmill workout, I developed mild heart palpitations. I stopped exercising, but the palpitations didn’t stop. By that evening, my boyfriend of one year decided that a trip to the emergency room was in order. We entered the hospital, afraid there was a problem with my heart. Hours later, we walked out the door knowing the problem was in my lung. A CT scan the following morning led to more questions and more waiting. One week later, a CT-guided needle biopsy gave me my answer: I had non-small cell lung cancer, most likely Stage I. I thought my entire world was ending. How could this be? I was only 33 and I’d never smoked. Lung cancer was not in my vocabulary! Surgery was suggested and I set out to find the best surgeon in town. Once I found him, I clung to his every word. Surgery gave me the best chance for a total cure. I was young, I was in overall good health, and I had caught it early. The doctor said that he would remove the cancer and I would return to my normal life.
The day before surgery, the Northeast was hit with a massive blizzard. When I called the hospital on the verge of hysteria, a kind staff member assured me that if I could make it in, the surgery would take place. At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, we shoveled our way out the front door to the car and traveled on snow-covered roads to make it to the hospital for my check-in time of 5:45 a.m. The last thing I recall before being put under is hearing the surgeon’s voice as he walked into the room.
Surgery was difficult, but not as bad as I had imagined. I was up and walking the day after surgery, and sent home on the fourth day. I was fortunate to have the help and support of family and friends during the days when the simple act of sitting up felt like a full time job. Meals were taken care of, my son was taken to school and my every need was attended to.
I returned to the surgeon for my three-week follow up in good spirits. However, I was blindsided when I heard the following: “Your pathology report shows five mediastinal lymph nodes positive for cancer, which puts you at Stage IIIA. There is little hope that chemotherapy will increase your odds for survival.” Those words echoed in my head. Was follow-up chemo useless, as the surgeon had said? Was I doomed? A panel of oncologists performed a further review of my records and recommended a regimen of daily radiation, along with weekly chemotherapy, for a period of six weeks. They felt this was my best shot at a cure. The weekend before beginning my radiation regimen, my boyfriend proposed to me over a game of Scrabble by spelling out “Marry Me” on the board. His timing could not have been more perfect and I floated through the first few days of radiation on Cloud 9. However, as I was hooked up to my first chemo intravenous later that week, the seriousness of what I was up against finally hit me. From that day forward, I couldn’t look at my son without crying. I would sit on his bed at night, watching him sleep as the tears flowed down my face. As I navigated my way through the unfamiliar territory of chemotherapy and radiation, each day began to feel worse than the next. The radiation treatment burned my esophagus and made it difficult to eat. The chemotherapy dehydrated me and I spent many afternoons hooked up to an I.V. receiving fluids. The nausea became constant, and I had to admit that I could no longer work. Each day that passed brought me closer to feeling that the end was imminent.
One night, while sitting on the edge of my son’s bed watching him sleep, instead of crying and sadness, a fierce feeling of determination came over me. I had to make it through this treatment and beat this monster into submission. This little boy needed me and I needed him! That was the turning point in my treatment. I muddled through the remaining weeks-weak, dehydrated, nauseous and dizzy-but determined.
Treatment finally ended and I was thrilled to find that, despite my original fears, my life had not. As the days passed, I began to have more good moments than bad and I slowly began to feel human again. Month by month the lingering side effects lessened and I realized that there were a few moments during which I actually didn’t think about cancer. My fiancé and I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis by having a dream wedding onboard a cruise ship surrounded by close family and friends.
The months rolled by and I realized that while I was fortunate to have achieved remission, there are many thousands who do not. All of my research brought me to the conclusion that much more needs to be done to increase awareness and funding if we are ever going to bring about change. My husband and I decided to tackle a benefit walk, and the idea for “The First South Jersey Lung Cancer Walk/Run and Rally” was born. Our walk took place in November 2004, a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, and we raised $32,000 for lung cancer research. Our second walk, held in November 2005, was an even greater success, raising over $45,000. Planning these events has been time consuming and often stressful, but worth every minute and I am so proud to play a small part in making a difference.
As I enter my third year post-diagnosis, I move forward with cautious optimism, putting one foot in front of the other, taking care of my body to the best of my ability with nutrition and exercise, nurturing my spiritual side and taking time each day to laugh. It has been a bumpy ride, but one I would gladly repeat to have the same end result. I do not know where God plans to take me on this journey, but I wouldn’t trade a moment of it. It has truly changed my life for the better and brought me a greater feeling of appreciation for all with which I am blessed.
Excerpted from Voices of Lung Cancer The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength, published by Lachance Publishing, New York, 2007.